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:
But, though the promise itself proved impossible to keep, George H.W. Bush’s words themselves have had a longevity far beyond their time.
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Write to Lily Rothman at firstname.lastname@example.org