The two-syl­la­ble word that summed up long­est-lived pres­i­dent — in the best way

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - OUTLOOK - By David Von Drehle Von Drehle writes a twice-weekly col­umn for the Wash­ing­ton Post. He was pre­vi­ously an edi­tor-at-large for Time Mag­a­zine, and is the au­thor of four books, in­clud­ing “Rise to Great­ness: Abra­ham Lin­coln and Amer­ica’s Most Per­ilous Year” a

As a star of “Sat­ur­day Night Live” dur­ing the mis­un­der­stood pres­i­dency of Ge­orge H.W. Bush, Dana Car­vey had peo­ple across the coun­try re­peat­ing, as a laugh line: “Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be pru­dent.” Car­vey’s Bush im­per­son­ation cap­tured the dis­tinc­tive syn­tax of a pa­tri­cian Yan­kee who was taught by his for­mi­da­ble mother that speak­ing in the first per­son was bad form.

But what made the phrase so dis­tinc­tively Bushian was “pru­dent,” an an­tique word that not only sig­naled his blue blood (as in, “Dink and Muffy agree that it’s pru­dent to resh­in­gle the sum­mer cot­tage”) but also summed up the pres­i­dent in two syl­la­bles.

Bush, who died Fri­day at 94 — the long­est-lived pres­i­dent in U.S. his­tory — wasn’t known for ex­cite­ment or in­spi­ra­tion. His pru­dence, how­ever, was no joke. Judged by Aris­to­tle and Aquinas to be among the high­est virtues, pru­dence is the dis­ci­plined use of wise and care­ful fore­sight. In mod­ern us­age, it is of­ten con­fused with over-cau­tion, even cow­ardice. But true pru­dence is not afraid of risk; it re­spects risk enough to cal­cu­late it.

We tend to for­get how dan­ger­ous the world was when Bush be­came pres­i­dent in 1989 af­ter eight years as Ron­ald Rea­gan’s un­der­study. In Moscow, Mikhail Gor­bachev promised open­ness and re­form, but ex­actly what this meant for the shape of the world was un­clear. The changes came fast and fu­ri­ously. Within less than a year, the Sovi­ets pulled out of Afghanistan; Chi­nese sol­diers mas­sa­cred pro­test­ers in Tianan­men Square; com­mu­nist gov­ern­ments fell in Poland, Hun­gary, East Ger­many, Cze­choslo­vakia and Ro­ma­nia; and the Ber­lin Wall came down.

Taken in­di­vid­u­ally, each of these events was wel­come news for the United States and its al­lies; even the blood­shed in China, hor­rific as it was, be­spoke a ris­ing gen­er­a­tion with dreams of free­dom. Taken to­gether, they threat­ened to un­bal­ance the world or­der.

Bush’s del­i­cate task was to al­low the So­viet Union to un­wind with a mea­sure of dig­nity while care­fully ex­pand­ing the West­ern um­brella. He needed to mea­sure his steps and see around cor­ners. Bush un­der­stood how ner­vous Eu­ro­peans would be about Ger­man uni­fi­ca­tion, for ex­am­ple, and care­fully as­sured the Poles, the French, the Rus­sians and oth­ers that the United States, through NATO, could pre­vent an­other rise of mil­i­taris­tic na­tion­al­ism in the new Ger­many.

This was un­marked trail. When was the map ever re­made and power re­struc­tured with­out the sledge­ham­mer of vi­o­lence? Bush’s pru­dent diplo­macy led some en­e­mies, and even some friends, to mis­take cau­tion for weak­ness. (”This is no time to go wob­bly!” Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Mar­garet Thatcher claimed to have scolded him at one point.) They for­got this was a man who, at 18, found it pru­dent to lead a bomber crew into com­bat as one of the youngest U.S. Navy avi­a­tors of World War II.

In the sum­mer of 1990, Iraqi dic­ta­tor Sad­dam Hus­sein pressed this er­ror too far, gam­bling that he could steal neigh­bor­ing Kuwait and Bush wouldn’t stop him. Over the next seven months, Bush or­ches­trated a mas­ter­piece of pru­dent lead­er­ship, draw­ing on the ré­sumé that made him per­haps the best­pre­pared pres­i­dent ever. The for­mer con­gress­man han­dled the pol­i­tics of build­ing a bi­par­ti­san con­sen­sus in Wash­ing­ton. The for­mer U.N. am­bas­sador pa­tiently walked the United Na­tions through one res­o­lu­tion af­ter an­other, tight­en­ing the screws on Hus­sein. The for­mer di­rec­tor of the CIA fore­saw the in­trigues of Mid­dle Eastern pol­i­tics and cut off Hus­sein’s at­tempts to ex­ploit them. The for­mer en­voy to China won Bei­jing’s pas­sive ap­proval of “all nec­es­sary means” to lib­er­ate Kuwait.

The global coali­tion that ul­ti­mately joined Op­er­a­tion Desert Storm, stretch­ing from Niger to New Zealand, Poland to Pak­istan, was a sign of wide­spread con­fi­dence in Bush’s abil­ity to wield Amer­i­can hege­mony with care. And his de­ci­sion to halt the op­er­a­tion with Hus­sein still in power vin­di­cated that con­fi­dence. For un­like his son and his son’s reck­less coun­selors — Don­ald Rums­feld and Dick Cheney most egre­giously — the se­nior Pres­i­dent Bush un­der­stood that pru­dence ad­vised against top­pling the dic­ta­tor with­out a good idea of what could take his place.

Two years plus six weeks af­ter Ge­orge H.W. Bush took of­fice, the world was a dif­fer­ent place than he found it, and he had demon­strated how well the new world could work. It’s shock­ing, re­ally, to look back on 1992 and see how lit­tle this achieve­ment counted with Amer­i­can vot­ers. Hav­ing won some 49 mil­lion votes in his 1988 land­slide, Bush was sent home af­ter a sin­gle term with barely 39 mil­lion in his col­umn.

The na­tion ap­par­ently wanted some­thing more ex­cit­ing. Hoo boy, have we got­ten it: Oval Of­fice sex­ca­pades, an im­peach­ment, the heed­less in­va­sion of Iraq fol­lowed some eight years later by the heed­less with­drawal of U.S. troops, an eco­nomic crash — all lead­ing up to the wild im­pro­vi­sa­tions of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. There are no do-overs in his­tory. But I be­lieve if we’d known then what we know now, we would have said: Not gonna do it.

Wouldn’t be pru­dent.

Ge­orge Bush Pres­i­den­tial Li­brary and Mu­seum

Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush cracks a smile as co­me­dian Dana Car­vey does his im­per­son­ation of Bush in De­cem­ber 1992.

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