As this nation mourns the passing and remembers the legacy of George H.W. Bush, his brand of statesmanship — decent, honorable, respectful of adversaries — seems so foreign to modern-day national politics.
Had Bush pledged today to seek a “kinder and gentler nation,” as he did when he accepted the GOP’s presidential nomination in 1988, Republicans might have rescinded their choice as not tough enough, not hardened enough, not mean enough.
Yet, as we look back on Bush’s career, not only as the nation’s 41st president but his entire public life, a certain wistfulness sets in for a time when this nation was not as bitterly divided as it is now, when political dialogue was not so coarse, when differences were put aside and common ground sought even after heated elections, when compromise was considered a desirable goal in Washington rather than a dirty word.
Bush was a good president, especially when it came to foreign policy. He assembled a coalition of nations, including Arab states, to quickly turn back Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 — a military campaign so overpowering that it took only 100 hours to complete and with minimal loss of life to U.S. forces and their allies. Although he would be criticized for not carrying the offensive to Baghdad and ousting Saddam Hussein, Bush, a decorated World War II veteran himself, respected the limits of a president’s war powers and the need to be absolutely certain that a war is worth the price in American lives. He also thought that it would be better for Saddam to be dumped by his own people, which did not happen but seemed like a reasonable calculation at the time.
Bush was blessed in a lot of ways, born into comfort and well-connected, first in business, then in politics. But he also had his share of personal and political setbacks, which he handled with grace and which helped him relate to the misfortune of others, even though he was given at times the unfair rap of being disconnected from the public he served. His loss to Bill Clinton in 1992 was bad luck, the result of a short-lived but untimely economic downturn and the strong third-party candidacy of Ross Perot, who mostly siphoned off votes that would have otherwise gone for Bush.
Rather than being bitter, though, at the fickleness of the American electorate, which went in two years from giving him sky-high approval ratings to booting him out of office, Bush licked his wounds and exited the White House with dignity, accompanied by his adorably unpretentious wife, Barbara. He would later use the prestige of his long career in public service — president, vice president, CIA director, envoy to China, United Nations ambassador, congressman — to do good. He joined forces in 2004 with Clinton, a former president by then as well, to make a bipartisan appeal for donations to help victims of a Southeast Asian tsunami, then did it again the next year following Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast.
Bush had the distinction of being only one of two presidents — the other being John Adams — to have a son elected president and the only one to live throughout a son’s entire term.
No president is ever perfect. They have tough calls to make and sometimes make the wrong one. But when they are motivated, as was Bush, by the public’s interest rather than their own, the nation forgives their errors and remembers their time in office with great admiration.