Youngest commissioned Navy fighter pilot. World War II combat survivor.
Oil company entrepreneur.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
U.S. Liaison to Beijing.
43rd Vice President.
Leader of global coalition to end the Cold War (without firing a shot) and free Kuwait.
A list one quarter as long would be impressive. Our late President George H.W. Bush’s list of life achievements and service is simply exceptional.
Much has been said of President Bush since his passing last Friday evening. He was the last American politician and leader that belonged to “The Greatest Generation.”
And his humility was such that he never was braggadocious about much of it. In fact, that could have, in part, cost him re-election. But it spoke to how he was raised and how he thought others would judge his works, instead of being a self-promoter.
Bush 41 was born of means, but enlisted to fight in World War II on his 18th birthday. He became the nation’s youngest fighter pilot and was shot down in combat, fortunately without serious injury. With his father a U.S. Senator from the Northeast, and his Ivy League connections, he also could have gone to work on Wall Street and had a cushy existence. Instead, he struck out for the Texas oil fields.
And it was serendipity he did. His son, President George W. Bush, remarked he didn’t believe either his father or himself would have been elected president had they stayed in the Northeast. Texas on one’s resume adds some gravitas as it is generally biggest and best by most measures.
Like many, I was taken by a fast-talking Texan Ross Perot, who threw a wrench into the 1992 election. Between the independent Perot and rightwing Newt Gingrich, Bush’s decorum-laden style was growing old to an impatient electorate who didn’t yet know how much worse it could get.
Yet Bush’s letter to Bill Clinton following his defeat was a study in graciousness. It is obvious he believed the nation and its citizens’ choices were bigger than any one president and his disappointment. And Bush left no doubt that he was now on America’s side, rather than simply licking wounds for his political party.
And Bush was consequential with his one term. In addition to the previously mentioned triumphs, he had many less-remembered accomplishments. Even his bills that are overlooked as part of his legacy improved life for millions of Americans, specifically the Americans With Disabilities Act, giving comfort and rec-
President George H.W. Bush at the re-dedication of the Bush Gallery at the National Museum of the Pacific War. — Photo courtesy August Faltin
ognition to so many who had gone ignored. He also pushed through Clean Air laws that reduced the chances of acid rain, something rarely mentioned in recent tributes.
We should be careful not to try and make saints of our leaders. In order to get where they were, all end up doing distasteful things either themselves or at the advice of campaign advisors.
But President Bush’s service was honorable and his life was one that was enviable. In addition to all of his accomplishments, he served with humility and class. Jon Meacham’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography tells the story of this man and his vast reach, humor, family-centeredness, empathy and his confidence to overcome criticism. (The working title for this book was “The Last Gentleman,” but Meacham felt it was too small for this president’s legacy.)
Meacham’s “Destiny and Power” captured President Bush perfectly: “Americans tend to prefer leaders on horseback: heroes who dream big and sound the trumpets. There is, however, another kind of leader — quieter and less glamorous but no less significant — whose virtues repay our attention. There is greatness in political lives dedicated more to steadiness than to boldness, more to reform than to revolution, more to the management of complexity than to the making of mass movements. Bush’s life code, as he once put it in a letter to his mother, was ‘Tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Be strong. Do your Best. Try hard. Forgive. Stay the course.’ Simple propositions — deceptively simple, for such sentiments are more easily expressed than embodies in the arena of public life.”
Rest in peace, good sir. We would do well to live up to this legacy of service.