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The Story Behind George H.W. Bush’s Famous ‘Read My Lips, No New Taxes’ Promise

3 minute read

Six words. That’s all it took to craft one of the most enduring quotes throughout the career of President George H.W. Bush — who died on Nov. 30, 2018, at the age of 94, just eight months after his wife Barbara Bush.

“Read my lips: no new taxes.”

Spoken by Bush during his 1988 run for the presidency, the quote helped Bush defeat Michael Dukakis, became a cornerstone of his Saturday Night Live persona (embodied by Dana Carvey) and also caught him in a political snare. At a time of major budget deficits and spending needs, Bush was — as many had predicted — unable to get by with cuts alone. Before his first year in office was complete, he had signed into law a “stealth budget” that, while leaving the income tax alone, raised various fees and levies. In 1990, David Letterman was joking that Bush’s catchphrase should be updated to “Read my lips: I was lying”; sure enough, it was clear that the original promise had to go.

But how did Bush end up making such a promise in the first place? In covering George H.W. Bush’s January 1989 inauguration, TIME got the backstory:

Had Bush honestly said, as did Dukakis, that he would raise taxes only as a ‘’last resort,’’ the country might have had a genuine debate.

Why didn’t he? Why, instead, did Bush voluntarily saddle himself with a seemingly intractable position? Roger Ailes, the media magician who crafted the Bush ads that permitted Dukakis no quarter, was one of the architects of “Read my lips.’’ The “point is really pretty simple,’’ says Ailes. “At the time, the race was close, and Dukakis had given us an opening by talking about taxes as a last resort. Now, let me tell you, the people believe politicians are going to raise their taxes. All the polls confirm this. So they’re interested in figuring out which candidate is really going to do it only as a last resort.

“When a guy like Dukakis says what he says, no matter how responsible it may be, the people take it to mean that he’ll raise taxes as a first resort. What you have to say to get on top of an issue like taxes is that you’d rather see your kids burned in the street than raise them. It wasn’t the easiest case to make to Bush, but he understood the stakes. We did what we had to do.’’

But, though the promise itself proved impossible to keep, George H.W. Bush’s words themselves have had a longevity far beyond their time.

Read the full story, on the occasion of Bush’s 1989 inauguration, here in the TIME Vault: A New Breeze Is Blowing”

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com