National News

George H.W. Bush’s Legacy: Revisiting Past Claims

Posted December 4, 2018 9:17 p.m. EST

After his defeat in the 1992 election, former President George H.W. Bush concluded that he lost his bid for a second term because he “just wasn’t a good enough communicator” and blamed the news media for the perception that he was out of touch with the average American. Certain claims are again abounding as the country prepares to bury Bush after his death on Friday. Here’s a look at some of them.

Was he really amazed by a grocery store scanner?

A visit Bush made to the National Grocers Association convention in Florida during the 1992 campaign cemented the impression that he was detached from middle-class life.

That February, The New York Times reported that he was “amazed” by a grocery store scanner.

After he left office, Bush called the Times article an ugly and inaccurate smear. Snopes, the debunking website, rated that characterization of him as false in a 2001 article.

Here’s what The Times reported in 1992:

“He signed his name on an electronic pad used to detect check forgeries. ‘If some guy came in and spelled George Bush differently, could you catch it?’ the president asked. ‘Yes,’ he was told, and he shook his head in wonder.

“Then he grabbed a quart of milk, a light bulb and a bag of candy and ran them over an electronic scanner. The look of wonder flickered across his face again as he saw the item and price registered on the cash register screen.

“'This is for checking out?’ asked Bush. ‘I just took a tour through the exhibits here,’ he told the grocers later. ‘Amazed by some of the technology.'”

The episode elicited derision in editorials: The Boston Globe cited it as an example of Bush’s “12 years’ vacation from the real world,” referring to his eight years as vice president and four as commander in chief. A column in Newsday described Bush as “dumbfounded” and “still out of touch.” And The Washington Post wrote Bush a quick pocket guide to other modern technologies like cable TV and microwaves.

Bush’s aides pushed back on how the president was characterized. A systems analyst who showed Bush the scanner told The Associated Press that he was “amazed at the ability of the scanner to take that torn label and reassemble it” — a new feature at the time.

The Times stood by its original reporting in a follow-up article a week later, and said videotape of the visit showed Bush impressed with “even basic scanner technology.” Newsweek and The Washington Post expressed skepticism at the Times’ interpretation.

Still, the story lived on and was repeated during the 1992 campaign and long after. In an interview months later, Hillary Clinton referred to the incident to argue that a new president should “recognize the reality of people’s lives.”

That summer, Bush awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation to N. Joseph Woodland, who invented the bar code.

“You’ve seen firsthand how impressed I am about how bar coding works,” Bush jokingly said to Woodland during the ceremony. “Amazing.”

What was his role in the Iran-Contra scandal?

During both his presidential campaigns, Bush publicly distanced himself from the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the U.S. government secretly traded arms to free hostages and used the funds to support rebels in Nicaragua.

In an August 1987 interview with The Washington Post, Bush claimed that he was “not in the loop” on discussions about selling arms to Iran. In that same article, an aide to Bush suggested he may not have been present at a meeting of high-ranking administration officials who were discussing the arms-for-hostages swap.

Those statements would later be contradicted by Bush’s testimony to the FBI and the independent counsel investigating the scandal, his diary and statements from other administration officials.

In a 1986 interview with the FBI and in a 1988 deposition, Bush “acknowledged that he was regularly informed of events connected with the Iran arms sales,” according to the independent counsel report that was published in 1993.

A note from Caspar W. Weinberger, the former defense secretary, was released in the final days of the 1992 campaign. The memo detailed a meeting in January 1986 in which Weinberger discussed the arms-for-hostages swap, and Bush favored the deal.

And in an excerpt from Bush’s diary, released in January 1993, the former president wrote of the hostage situation, “I’m one of the few people that know fully the details, and there is a lot of flack and misinformation out there.”

The independent counsel, Lawrence E. Walsh, wrote in his final report that he also hoped to interview Bush again to address what he described as a number of other inconsistencies between the available evidence and the president’s testimony, including from when he was vice president. Walsh never received his second interview.

Did Ross Perot cost him his re-election bid?

Ross Perot, an independent candidate who earned almost 19 percent of the vote in the 1992 presidential election, is often cited as the reason Bush lost to Bill Clinton. Yet election experts have challenged that theory.

Perot’s effect “on the campaign’s outcome appears to have been minimal,” The Times reported shortly after the election, citing how his voters were more or less evenly split between Clinton and Bush. The Washington Post concurred, writing that Perot’s absence would have flipped one state to Bush’s ledger — but Clinton would have still won handily.

Scholarly research largely supports those analyses. A 1995 study found that Perot siphoned voters from Bush, but not enough to overcome Clinton’s lead. A 1999 article in an academic journal agreed that Perot’s absence would not have altered the result of the election but concluded that he had actually reduced Clinton’s margin of victory over Bush. It also suggested that 1 in 5 voters supporting Perot would have sat out the election had he not been on the ballot.

What was his record on the HIV/AIDS crisis?

Compared to President Ronald Reagan, who is often believed to be the American leader who failed to adequately address the epidemic, Bush signed two pieces of legislation related to the crisis. One protected AIDS patients from discrimination and another created a federally funded program for people with the disease.

But overall, his record is mixed, AIDS activists say. They contend Bush did not do enough to fund research on the disease and failed to adopt recommendations from the National AIDS Commission on sex education and needle exchanges.