Echoes of Martin Van Buren in George H.W. Bush

George H.W. Bush

December 5, 2018, will be a national day of mourning for George Herbert Walker Bush. It is fitting that the 41st U.S. president will be remembered on the anniversary of the birth of the eighth president, Martin Van Buren, because the two men shared a number of parallels noted over the years. These include:

  • Both served in Congress. Van Buren was a U.S. senator from 1821-1828; Bush was a U.S. representative from 1967-1971.
  • Both possessed foreign policy experience before becoming president. Van Buren was Andrew Jackson's secretary of state and spent a short time as minister to England. Bush was ambassador to the United Nations, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and chief liaison officer to China.
  • Both were involved in presidential scandals. Van Buren was centrally involved in the Eaton affair involving the controversial marriage of Secretary of War John Eaton and Margaret O’Neale Timberlake. Bush was likely directly connected to the Iran-Contra affair, a secret and illegal arms-for-hostages deal.
  • Both held the vice-presidential office. Van Buren served under Jackson from 1833 to 1837 and Bush under Ronald Reagan from 1981-1989.
  • Both succeeded two-term presidents who were elected with large electoral and popular majorities. Van Buren followed Jackson, who won resounding victories in both 1828 and 1832. Bush followed Reagan, who won convincingly in 1980 and 1984. In fact, Bush was the first incumbent vice president to win election since Van Buren, which was commemorated at one Bush party by the handing out of Van Buren t-shirts.
  • Both were saddled with controversial vice presidents. Richard Mentor Johnson, Van Buren's vice president, had a relationship with not one, not two, but three enslaved African-American women during a time when interracial relationships were verboten. Dan Quayle, Bush's vice president, was known for making numerous verbal gaffes and inciting criticism with his comments on the titular character on TV's Murphy Brown.
  • Both were viewed as pragmatic presidents who lacked a vision that inspired Americans. Van Buren was seen as someone who placed politics above ideology and who lacked a compelling reelection campaign strategy in 1840. Bush was ridiculed for referring to "the vision thing" when asked to lay out themes for his run at the presidency in 1988.
  • Both appointed two U.S. Supreme Court justices. Van Buren selected John McKinley and Peter Vivian Daniel, and Bush selected David Souter and Clarence Thomas.
  • Both were one-term presidents who lost re-election due in large part to the nation's economy. Van Buren never solved the Panics of 1837 or 1839, while a recession and a rising unemployment rate harmed Bush's re-election chances.

Drawing historical parallels is mostly a parlor game and tends towards confirmation bias, but in this case, it allows us the opportunity not only to honor a recently deceased president but also to remember his nineteenth-century predecessor.

Mark R. Cheathem, project director