This week, as the nation mourns the death of President George H.W. Bush, who died Friday at age 94, we should pause not only to celebrate his many contributions to the United States of America, but also to simply recall what kind of a person he was: a kind and decent man who lived to serve.
His true legacy may neither be the accomplishments of his single term in office as president from 1989-1993, nor his service as President Ronald Reagan’s vice president from 1981-1989, nor his service as a congressman from Texas, nor his leadership of the Central Intelligence Agency or his ambassadorships to the United Nations and China.
His legacy was his decency. Bush wanted a “kinder, gentler America” and he lived that ideal as a personally warm and genial man. He was even-tempered and governed respectfully, often in a bipartisan manner.
President Bush was born into wealth and privilege. The son of a United States senator from Connecticut, Bush graduated from Phillips Academy Andover and headed directly into the maelstrom of World War II. He volunteered for the United States Navy aviation program as a seaman second class, was promoted to ensign, and won his wings. He then was sent to the South Pacific, where he was shot down over Chichi Jima in a mission where two of his comrades perished. He was only 20 years old.
Rescued by a submarine after spending two days floating in a raft, violently ill, then-Lt. j.g. Bush returned to the U.S. a changed man. He went to Yale, excelled at academics (he was Phi Beta Kappa), and was captain of the Yale baseball team that went to the 1948 College World Series. Bush went to work for Dresser Industries, where he sold oil-drilling equipment; a far cry from the ivy and gin-and-tonics world he had occupied in Connecticut and Maine.
This led him to Bakersfield, California, where he spent a hot summer in 1949 with his new wife Barbara and his infant son, George W. Bush, who went on to become the 43rd President of the United States.
He lost interest in sales and decided to go into oil drilling, moving his young family to Midland, Texas, where he and a partner started Zapata Petroleum in 1951. Bush became a millionaire.
In Texas, he became interested in public service. In 1963, he was elected the Harris County (Houston) GOP chairman in an era where there weren’t a lot of Republicans in Texas. Bush went on to run for the U.S. Senate in 1964 as a Goldwater Republican, where he opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He lost. He later regretted his position on the landmark act, saying he “took some far-right positions to get elected,” and pledged not to do it again.
Bush vowed to run on his own instincts, and was elected to Congress in 1966. Let’s be clear: Bush was a politician, not a saint. He changed positions to get elected throughout his career, most notably on abortion. This is not unheard of: Ronald Reagan, originally an FDR New Deal Democrat, changed parties in 1962. Bush’s lowest moment might have come when he employed Lee Atwater, a brawling political consultant, to take down the hapless Gov. Mike Dukakis with the now-notorious Willie Horton television ad.
Bush benefitted mightily from the influence of two Californians: Presidents Nixon and Reagan. Nixon appointed Bush to the United Nations, and made him chairman of the Republican National Committee, where he somewhat lamely defended the embattled president. Reagan, after a stinging loss to the more moderate Bush in the 1980 GOP Iowa Caucuses, wound up winning the nomination but resurrected Bush’s political career by offering him the vice presidential nomination. Reagan was positioned where the party had already begun to go: southern, western, and to the right.
In many ways, Bush was the last Eastern establishmentarian to hold power in the GOP, yet in 1988 he was the last Republican presidential candidate to carry California, the home of Nixon and Reagan.
Bush epitomized the old Ivy League power structure. While a master navigator of foreign policy, he was sometimes lost at sea on domestic issues.
After presiding over the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and a decisive — if debatable — victory in Kuwait in 1991, Bush lost the presidency to Bill Clinton in 1992, who managed to portray Bush as out of touch at home.
That may well have been true, but Clinton ultimately wound up lionizing his former rival, saying, “he was an honorable, gracious and decent man who believed in the United States, our Constitution, our institutions and our shared future.”
First Lady Barbara Bush observed that the 42nd president viewed President Bush as a father figure he never had.
Bush’s career was a series of tacks, but he sailed mostly on a moderate course; his son, President George W. Bush, was far more successful at the retail grit of GOP politics. If 41 was tweed, 43 was leather. While Bush Senior was a transplanted Connecticut Yankee who (usually not too successfully) affected Texas roots, his son was a native Texan who needed no schooling to identify with the core of what then was the GOP base.
That base has shifted dramatically in 20 years. One of Bush’s other sons, 2016 GOP presidential candidate Gov. Jeb Bush, smashed into and exploded against the wall that the GOP built.
Wednesday will be the national day of mourning for the life of President George H.W. Bush. All Americans should pause to honor the 41st president on that day, and remember him as the soldier, the scholar, the statesman, and, finally and most importantly, the gentleman.