6 Little Words Helped Make George H.W. Bush (A One-Term) President "Read my lips" succeeded at countering Bush's image problem. But if it improved his chances of being elected in 1988, it may have ruined his chances of being re-elected in 1992.

6 Little Words Helped Make George H.W. Bush (A 1-Term) President

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At President George H.W. Bush's funeral today, his fellow Republican Senator Alan Simpson recalled a pivotal moment in Bush's tenure.


ALAN SIMPSON: He often said, when the really tough choices come, it's the country - not me. It's not about Democrats or Republicans. It's for our country that I have fought for.

CHANG: That fight wasn't overseas but right here in Washington.


And that fight started with these six words.


GEORGE BUSH: Read my lips - no new taxes.


KELLY: President Bush from his speech accepting the nomination for president in 1988 - and for how those words may have both improved Bush's chances of being elected and ruined his chances of being reelected, we turn to NPR's Ron Elving. Hey, there Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So for words that have been so enduring - so famous for 30 years now - were they seen as remarkable at the time?

ELVING: It was street talk, and Bush was better known for being preppy and Ivy League. But it was effective partly for just that reason and also because it echoed another street phrase that had been used by President Reagan a few years earlier, quoting a line from a Clint Eastwood movie about a police detective named "Dirty Harry." Reagan said if the Democrats tried to raise taxes, he would be more than glad to veto that. In fact, he would enjoy it.


RONALD REAGAN: And I have only one thing to say to the tax increasers. Go ahead. Make my day.


ELVING: Of course, using lines from movies was very much Ronald Reagan. It was not really George Bush at the time. He had an image problem in 1988. Newsweek ran a cover that said the wimp factor and showed him on a yacht. And people questioned - even with all his athleticism and his war heroes record, they questioned whether he was tough enough to be president.

KELLY: So this line - read my lips, no new taxes - this was an effort to hit back at that cover - the wimp factor, the image that he was battling.

ELVING: That's right. I think it's important to listen to the way he built up to those six words and the way the crowd is with him. And this was really a Reagan-esque moment for him.


BUSH: My opponent won't rule out raising taxes, but I will. And the Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I'll say no. And they'll push, and I'll say no. And they'll push again, and I'll say to them, read my lips - no new taxes.


KELLY: So a storm over the line - you can hear the crowd going crazy. And it works. He gets elected. He's president. Fast-forward two years. It's summer of 1990. What's going on?

ELVING: He's in a fight with the Democrats over the budget, and there are a lot of other things going on around the world. There is trouble brewing in Kuwait. That's going to turn into the Persian Gulf War.

KELLY: That became the first Gulf War.

ELVING: We're slipping into recession in that same month. Also he's very worried about the reality of the federal budget deficit. And the cumulative debt of the United States had more than doubled in the decade of Reagan and Bush being president. And it was now $2.7 trillion. So he wanted to get all that done. And he was willing to take a risk and deal with the Democrats and, in this case, displease many of his most conservative supporters.

KELLY: Right. Because his own party was not on board with this at all - this guy appears on the scene, whose name is very familiar to us all - Newt Gingrich - and starts leading the pushback.

ELVING: He was the newest member of the House leadership, at that time, in the minority. And this was his opportunity to really to start running a rebellion against the more conventional, more establishment leaders of the Republican Party. And that then would help inspire a challenge to George H.W. Bush's renomination in 1992. That came from former Reagan speechwriter Pat Buchanan.

KELLY: And that of course became fodder for Bill Clinton, who ultimately of course went on to win that election and keep George H.W. Bush a one-term president.

ELVING: Clinton liked to say that it was really a question of whether or not President Bush was trustworthy if he could make a pledge like that and then break it. But Clinton followed much the same sort of policy when he became president. And he did have a balanced package of spending cuts and tax increases in his first term. And that actually, in combination with Bush had done in his deal in 1990, captured a great deal of revenue when the economy boomed in that section of the decade and actually brought the federal budget deficit to the brink of balance by the end of the 1990s.

KELLY: Wow. Imagine that - a balanced budget. But let me ask you this. Did President Bush ever talk about this after he left office - whether he regretted using those words at his convention speech or what followed in the years afterward?

ELVING: I don't think he regretted what he said at the convention. There probably were times he wondered if you would have had to have signed off on that budget deal with the Democrats, and he actually apologized for doing so during the heat of the Republican primaries in 1992. But in the long run, he probably accepted both the decision to use those words at the convention and the signing off on the budget deal, in exactly the sense that Alan Simpson meant in that quote that you played earlier from the funeral today - that he was willing to take the risk - probably didn't know how bad the fallout would be - because he thought it was in the best interest of the country in the long run.

KELLY: NPR's Ron Elving. Thank you, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Mary Louise.

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