TAMPA, Fla. — He is a ghostly presence at the Republican National Convention, He Who Shall Not Be Named.
Former President George W. Bush has had no place of honor at his party’s 2012 convention. In fact, other than a videotaped message delivered Wednesday night, neither he nor his father, former President George H.W. Bush, has had any place at all.
If not for a scheduled, non-prime-time appearance Thursday by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the convention might have slipped by without any representation in person from the closest thing the country has to a Republican dynasty.
“George W. Bush’s legacy will be honored — at the Democratic convention,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of political communication at the University of Pennsylvania, who compared Bush’s treatment to that accorded former President Nixon at the 1976 GOP convention, the first after he resigned in disgrace.
Both men, she said, were consigned to the political equivalent of the seventh circle of hell. “Those in the seventh circle are wiped out of memory. They simply don’t exist,” she said.
Nixon’s successor, the late President Ford, has arguably been a bigger presence at the latest GOP gathering than the Bushes, thanks to Michigan delegates wearing his No. 48 University of Michigan football jersey. Before Wednesday, there had been more praise heaped on Democratic presidents, especially Bill Clinton, who earns plaudits from nominee Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign for overseeing a bipartisan agreement on welfare reform.
It isn’t hard to find delegates wearing old Ronald Reagan pins, but few wear their allegiance to either Bush. There have been virtually no mentions of them in speeches.
In the video, which was shown some two hours before the broadcast networks began airing the convention, the two Bushes and their wives chatted amiably about their presidencies, each praising the other and both praising Romney. The elder Bush said his son would be remembered for honesty and integrity. “Never a scandal,” he said. George W. Bush said his father would be remembered for “vision, a clear strategy and calm nerves.”
It makes some sense for the senior Bush to recede into memory. It has been 20 years since he lost to Clinton, ending his one-term presidency. His loss is not a happy memory for Republicans, and his presidency, although it has grown in the estimation of some historians, is not considered to be in the same league as Reagan’s.
George W. Bush is a different case. He stands alongside Reagan as the only Republicans to complete two terms since Dwight D. Eisenhower. His was an activist presidency, and he enjoyed great popularity among Republicans for most of his tenure.
But many Republicans today would just as soon not dwell on the Bush presidency because it was a time of housing foreclosures that pulled the economy into recession, and Bush himself undertook some unpopular measures in response, including the creation of the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
And there are other reasons for Republicans to give Bush the cold shoulder, said Bill Lacy, a longtime Republican strategist who is now director of the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas.
One is that Obama’s reelection campaign repeatedly invokes Bush’s memory to remind voters that the incumbent inherited a disastrous economy. Republicans don’t want to reinforce that message, Lacy said.
Also, he said, there has been a reassessment of Bush’s presidency, especially among some younger conservatives who have decided he was too much of a big spender.
“There is a growing strain … of individuals in the party who believe that the problems that have gotten us into trouble with federal debt and other issues go back before this president,” Lacy said, referring to Obama.
Finally, he said, there is room for only one “bright shining star” in the legacy of the Republican Party. That position, he said, is firmly occupied by Reagan.