The death of President George HW Bush on November 30, 2018, marks the end of an era. The commemoration and celebration of the service of the late president and his family was historic.
A Life of Service
In recent decades, we’ve become accustomed to so-called elites exempting themselves from citizen service. Few elected or appointed officials have served in the military. Few business leaders have served in government in any capacity. Now we have a president who has broken new ground in this forlorn respect, having had no prior military or civilian public service.
George HW Bush was an admirable throwback to earlier expectations. When the Japanese Empire executed an unprovoked sneak attack on the American naval fleet at Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7, 1941, Bush was a high school senior. Upon graduation he enlisted for military service. He would serve with distinction as one of the youngest naval aviators.
Young Bush was following the instincts imparted by a family with a distinguished lineage. He and his wife Barbara would advance the legacy of service. Ultimately, they would join the Adamses of Massachusetts as the sole families to produce father and son presidencies.
Any definition of a successful life must include service to others.
—George HW Bush
Having excelled in the military and subsequently at Yale, Bush migrated to the post-war boom in Texas. He entered the oil business and started a large family. Following the path blazed by his father, the formidable investment banker and US senator Prescott Bush, he entered electoral politics in early middle age.
At age 40, Bush challenged Democratic incumbent Ralph Yarborough for the US Senate. Reflecting his party’s longstanding dominance in the Lone Star State, Yarborough easily prevailed. Nonetheless Bush acquitted himself well. He subsequently served two terms in the House, representing the tony River Oaks area of Houston. Bush aimed for a rematch with Yarborough in 1970. Urged on by President Nixon and other party leaders, Bush entered the race with high expectations. They were altered overnight, when conservative Lloyd Bentsen defeated Yarborough in the Democratic primary. Similar to Bush in background, age, temperament and philosophy, Bentsen, with the great advantage of his party’s label, won the seat he would hold for the next quarter-century.
Recognizing his accomplishments and potential, Presidents Nixon and Ford appointed him to a series of high-profile posts in contentious, consequential areas: US ambassador the United Nations; chair of the Republican National Committee; ambassador to the People’s Republic of China; Director of Central Intelligence.
Bush performed with aplomb. As he had done throughout his life, going back to prep school, he excelled in various areas while maintaining humility and grace. In the phrase of the time, he made it look easy.
George HW Bush was born to many advantages. With the benefit of hindsight, some mistakenly presume his rise to the presidency was all but preordained.
Where many in his circumstances might have taken an easy route, Bush continually took significant risks. His socio-economic privilege doubtless afforded him the confidence of one who can rely on the consolation of an assured fallback position. The high position also meant that his successes were liable to be discounted—and his failures highlighted.
Consider the risk taking from the point of view of Bush and his family at the time. His enlistment in the Navy and daring as a pilot. His move to Texas with Barbara, where the two dyed-in-the-wool New Englanders would start a family and a business. His jump into the rough-and-tumble of Texas politics. His decision to run statewide in his first electoral bid as an insurgent in 1964—amid internal strife in the GOP and with President Johnson at the top of the ticket, cruising toward a historic landslide. His support of key civil rights measures as a member of the House of Representatives from a conservative district. His green-lighting of efforts boosting him for the vice presidency during the Nixon and Ford years. His rapid rise at the highest levels of presidential appointments.
With only four years of elective office under his belt, Bush gathered up his other experiences to make a run for the presidency in 1980. The odds were steep.
In the midst of a memorably large and talented field, Bush started strong and held firm through the nomination process. He bested all the candidates but one: Ronald Reagan.
Ultimately, Bush emerged as something like an unavoidable choice for the vice presidency. Reagan acceded with scarcely concealed reluctance. Soon enough, Bush’s unquestionable loyalty and competence earned the Californian’s trust and appreciation.
After eight years of the Reagan administration, Bush fought his way through a heavily contested party nominating process. He overcame the headwinds of history, becoming the first vice president elected directly to the presidency since Martin Van Buren. The 1988 election, like 1908 and 1928, stands out for having an outgoing second-term president succeeded by a candidate from the same party.
Following a consequential leader such as Reagan was bound to be a formidable challenge.
If Ronald Reagan was a visionary and romantic, George HW Bush was, for all his accomplishments and background, relatively down-to-earth. Bush would serve in an important way that was essential to advancing the Reagan legacy: as an implementer, a consolidator, an institutional steward.
Bush’s personal imprint—unavoidably abraded during his appointive career, altogether submerged during his loyal service as vice president—was unmistakable in his administration.
Nowhere was Bush’s signature approach more decisive than in the wrap-up of the Cold War. It’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Reagan bringing to bear the combine idealism and ruthlessness that knocked the pins out of the Soviet empire. It’s difficult to imagine anyone better suited than George HW Bush to navigate the treacherous historic forces unleashed as Russian and Communist presence was expelled in real-time from much of Central Europe.
If he had done nothing else, Bush’s role in guiding the emergence of a reunified Germany would seal his place in history. Of course, he did so much more.
His intervention made possible the Americans with Disabilities Act. So, too, with the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which remains, a generation later, the last comprehensive overhaul of a major American environmental statute.
His masterly diplomacy, combined with wise strategic limitations, stabilized the dangerous circumstances unleashed by the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein’s brutal Iraqi regime. Then, in an echo of the electoral rebuke administered to Winston Churchill in the aftermath of the Second World War, Bush was defeated for reelection in 1992.
President Bush famously brushed away questions about his vision and legacy. This might be regarded at once as a limitation of his leadership, and a reflection of his high virtue as an individual.
Like the great British prime minister William Ewart Gladstone, it might be said of Bush that his “defects are such that in a world a little wiser and better they would themselves be merits.” As Jehu Jr elaborated in his summation of Gladstone’s historic service: “Were he a worse man, he would be a better statesman.”