This post explores the most influential American politicians who defined the politics of the 1990s. This post shares the lower five on the list.
10. Barbara Bush
Barbara Bush served as First Lady from 1989 to 1993. Prior to her husband’s election victory in 1988, she served as Second Lady from 1981 to 1989.
As First Lady, Bush’s priority was promoting literacy for Americans. She became involved with the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, pushing her cause.
“The ability to read, write, and comprehend brings dignity to daily life and equal opportunity to fulfill one’s greatest potential. Improved literacy rates have the power to strengthen our economy by boosting labor productivity, cutting billions of dollars in healthcare costs, and breaking the cycle of poverty for families in need.”from Barbara Bush Foundation’s “About Us”
Some accounts lend to the idea that Barbara was more liberal than her husband, George on some social issues including abortion, which she referred to as being “a private matter.”
However, she remained a loyal defender of her husband and his moral character.
Aside from her main goal of eradicating illiteracy in the United States, Bush also tackled issues including homelessness, teenage pregnancy, and AIDS.
Her children George Walker Bush and Jeb Bush later became involved in politics, and her son George W. Bush became president in 2001.
In some ways, Barbara Bush was the matriarch of one of America’s political dynasties.
9. Joe Biden
Delaware Senator Joseph Biden was a powerful in the U.S. Senate through the 1990s. He was chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1987 to 1995, which oversees the Justice Department and its agencies. The Senate Judiciary is also responsible for investigating nominees for district courts and the Supreme Court.
While Biden ran for the presidency in 1988, Supreme Court nominations is where Biden’s primary influence throughout the 1990s came from. He chaired the Judiciary Committee during the nominations of Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Biden received credit for sinking the nomination of Robert Bork, in the 1980s, angering many Republicans. 58 Senators voted against his confirmation to the Supreme Court.
In 1991, Biden oversaw hearings for the nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas, a Black conservative appointed by President Bush to the Supreme Court.
“From my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I’m concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas.”Justice Clarence Thomas on the Anita Hill hearings as an attack on Black conservatism
He also chaired the subsequent Anita Hill hearings over allegations that Thomas sexually harassed Hill, who was a law professor at the time.
Biden’s leadership during the Anita Hill hearings was criticized as unfair. Critics argued that he and other members attacked Hill and failed to call additional witnesses to corroborate her accusations.
Biden’s role as chair for the Senate Judiciary is connected to the modern-day Senate fights over Supreme Court nominations, particularly that of Justice Brett Kavanaugh who like Clarence Thomas was also accused of sexual harassment.
I highly recommend FRONTLINE’s “Supreme Revenge: Battle for the Supreme Court,” which follows the evolution of Supreme Court nomination fights starting with the hearings over Bork and Thomas, chaired by Biden.
As Delaware’s Senator, Biden played a key role in shaping policy around “law and order” in the 1990s. He helped write the 1994 crime bill, an effort for Democrats to be “tougher on crime.”
The bill aimed to increase incarceration rates to reduce violent crime which was on the rise throughout the decade. While it didn’t do as much as Biden had wanted as most incarcerations happened at the state level, the legislation showed a “tough on crime” attitude from himself, President Clinton, and the Democrats.
Biden joined the majority of Democrats in voting against the Gulf War and became a ranking minority member on Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
On the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he supported NATO airstrikes in Bosnia and in Kosovo against Yugoslavian troops in 1999.
8. Colin Powell
Colin Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants grew up in Harlem, New York during the 1940s. Powell fought in the Vietnam War in 1962 and 1963, and he earned a Purple Heart after being wounded in combat.
He climbed the ranks within the military, and he was Reagan’s national security advisor from 1987 to 1989.
Under the George H.W. Bush administration, Powell became the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, making him the first African-American to hold the position.
As Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell oversaw the end of the Cold War, military intervention in Panama, and the Gulf War in Iraq.
During the Gulf War in 1991, Powell played a key role in military strategy. He formulated the Powell Doctrine, which aimed to build up forces and to exert all military power in a relentless manner to force a quick victory.
By focusing on limited goals accompanied by an overwhelming amount of military power, the Powell Doctrine sought to end conflict as quickly as possible.
“I understood the nature of that war, how limited it was, and it wasn’t the model of what we could do in every other conflict that comes along.”Colin Powell on the Gulf War
Powell also engaged in diplomatic assignments in Haiti (1994) and Nigeria (1999). While influential as a military leader in the 1990s, Powell’s fame/notoriety would come from his tenure as Secretary of State under the George W. Bush administration and his role in the Iraq War.
7. Ross Perot
Perot was the most successful third-party candidate in modern American history. He ran as an independent in the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections.
Perot, a billionaire from Texas, launched his campaign as a political outsider, challenging incumbent George H.W. Bush and Democratic rival Bill Clinton.
He utilized cable TV and infomercials to share his message and vision with Americans.
President Bush didn’t take Perot’s campaign all that seriously, and he was more focused on Clinton.
“I know Ross Perot, and he’s crazy. Mark my words, this won’t last. And the American people are never going to elect a person of Bill Clinton’s character. This is all going to work out, and we’re gonna win.”George H.W. Bush on an ascendant Ross Perot campaign in 1992 from Jon Meacham’s “Destiny and Power”
His campaign focused on the growing national debt and deficit, launching fiscal conservatism to the mainstream of the 1992 election.
He also argued against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), arguing that it would cause “a giant sucking sound of jobs being pulled out of this country.”
While he didn’t win any electoral votes, Perot 19% of the popular vote, the best of any third-party candidate in modern American history.
Clinton won the race with 43% and Bush lost with about 37.5% of the vote.
Bush believed that Perot’s campaign split the conservative vote, leading to his loss.
“I think he cost me the election, and I don’t like him.”George H.W. Bush in HBO’s documentary “41”
Some view Perot as the framework for modern populism, and candidates in the Green Party and the Libertarian Party view him as the most successful attempt yet at breaking up the two-party system in the United States.
As of 2019, the year of his death, Perot had a net worth of about $4.1 billion.
6. Newt Gingrich
In the 1990s, conservatives believed that the Federal Government now permeated aspects of daily life that it hadn’t decades before.
Civil rights, law and order, racial discrimination, economic regulation, and workplace discrimination were all areas in which the Federal government now stood.
The 1990s continued Reagan’s view of limiting the size and power of the government, and Newt Gingrich believed this ideology wholeheartedly.
George H.W. Bush famously told Americans at the 1988 Republican National Convention: “Read my lips: no new taxes.”
When he raised taxes in 1990, everyone remembered what he had told them just two years before. One of those people was Newt Gingrich.
A U.S. representative from Georgia, Gingrich was a staunch conservative. He formulated a plan to bring Republicans back to power in the House of Representatives, which had been controlled by Democrats for 40 years.
He sought to challenge Bill Clinton and his party in Congress with help from the American people.
In 1994, he helped craft the “Contract with America.” The contract listed several policy reforms that Republicans promised should they win power in Congress in that year’s midterm elections.
Some policy changes included requiring a three-fifths majority vote to pass tax increases, reform to accounting of the Federal Budget, and auditing of Congress for waste and abuse.
“Like Lincoln, our first Republican president, we intend to act ‘with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.’ To restore accountability to Congress. To end its cycle of scandal and disgrace. To make us all proud again of the way free people govern themselves.”from the Contract with America
Republicans made colossal gains in the midterms and won control of both the House and the Senate with Gingrich being rewarded for his work by being voted in as Speaker of the House from 1995 to 1999.
Gingrich’s political career is viewed as one of the causes of increased political polarization. In a 1978 speech to a group of College Republicans, he told them this:
“One of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty. We encourage you to be neat, obedient, and loyal, and faithful, and all those Boy Scout words, which would be great around the campfire but are lousy in politics.”Newt Gingrich
Gingrich’s aggressive attacks on both moderate Republicans and Democrats earned him few friends except his fellow Republican revolutionaries.
His aggressive tactics were new to the old order of Republicans and Democrats in Congress, but they paid off in the Republican Revolution of 1994, earning him House leadership and political notoriety for years to come.