SOUTH BEND – Long before all the recent tributes to George H.W. Bush, before all those nice things said about him after his death, he was moving up quickly and deservedly in the ranking of presidents.

Not up there among the ones historians traditionally rate as the greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, the two Roosevelts and Thomas Jefferson. But the 41st president, defeated for re-election and leaving office with low approval, has climbed well into the top half in the ranking of presidents on lists of evaluations by historians.      

Sure, much of the high praise now for Bush, for his civility, decency, upholding of presidential dignity and ability to achieve bipartisan agreements at home and coalitions abroad, is enhanced by comparing with the present.

But before there was a President Trump in the White House for comparison, Bush was moving up in esteem as historians evaluated what he did in a single term.

George Herbert Walker Bush did a lot.

He steered the nation, indeed, the world through the perilous times of the collapse of the Soviet Union, still with its nuclear might, and worked with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to fee nations held under Soviet domination, bring about reunification of Germany and promote stability in Europe.

Even two things for which he was ridiculed turned out to have been smart decisions.

One was the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when he put together a coalition that drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and shattered Iraqi forces. Some critics complained that he didn’t send forces to Baghdad to “finish the job.”  

His son, President George W. Bush, who doesn’t do so well in presidential rankings, mistakenly took Baghdad and took on a bungled nation-building effort that proved terribly costly in lives and deficit spending. It left Iran as the real winner in the region.

The approach of the first President Bush avoided high casualties and need for occupation and brought coalition financial contributions that paid for the effort.

A second area of ridicule was over his budget agreement with Democrats in Congress to deal with growing deficits by raising taxes on the wealthy to pay the bills.

He had in his nomination acceptance speech spoken six famous words: “Read my lips. No new taxes.”

Economists look back on the stabilization in that budget package as paving the way for economic gains and deficit reductions in the 1990s.

The irony is that President Bill Clinton, who beat Bush by blaming him for an economy that actually was starting to improver, then enjoyed the prosperity that continued and the deficit reductions that continued until the second President Bush sent the deficit skyrocketing.

As the presidential rankings shift, Bush 41 goes up, Bush 43 stays down and Clinton slips a bit.

Presidents never stay in the rankings where the public might place them as they leave office.

For example, John F. Kennedy, thought of as great by so many as they mourned his assassination, has been declining in ranking as historians view what he actually accomplished in his unfinished term. Harry Truman, with dismal approval ratings as he left office, keeps moving up as historians evaluate his decisions in bringing World War II to a close and dealing with threats from Russia and China. Truman finished far ahead of Kennedy in one recent presidential ranking by historians.

While not claiming that George H.W. Bush ranks among the greatest, James Baker, former secretary of state and long-time Bush adviser, has called him “the best one-term president the country has ever had.”

Even before Bush’s accomplishments became more appreciated, no evaluation by historians ever put him in the bottom ranks, certainly never challenging James Buchanan for the traditional last-place ranking. Whether Buchanan will remain secure in his place is not now certain. 

Colwell has covered Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.