Bush’s career looms as large as that of any public figure in recent memory.
George Herbert Walker Bush spent but four years in the Oval Office as America’s president, but as we mourn his passing Friday at age 94, the pain of that loss is leavened by the increasingly shared conviction that his career before, during and after the White House looms as large as that of any public figure in recent memory.
It’s true that Bush lacked the political genius of either his lionized predecessor or the silver-tongued successor with whom he later became close friends. His record as president was mixed, and his campaign for a second term was scuttled by an inability to convince voters he understood the economic and cultural currents in which they were adrift.
Where he succeeded, Bush did so on a grand, and often global, scale. He made history, much of which made the world and America a better place, as when he led a broad international coalition to push an invading Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, or when he almost single-handedly stagemanaged the creation of a new world order amid the collapse of communism, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany.
These events rocked the world, and Bush calmly sat shotgun to history steering the outcome with a calm that characterized most of his public life.
On the domestic front, despite Democrats controlling both houses of Congress all four years he was president, Bush signed significant, even landmark, legislation, from the Clean Air Act to the Americans with Disabilities Act. He signed legislation that enhanced tax credits for poor families, and banned the importation of most semiautomatic weapons. After a veto, he reluctantly signed a labor standards bill that raised the minimum wage, too.
What stands out most today about this remarkable man and the more than 75 years he spent in the public eye is the manner in which he conducted himself. He was up and he was down, but Bush almost always steered to the center with a belief that Americans should come together to find solutions.
He did so with a set of manners and respect for “the other guy,” as he would put it, that are perilously rare today. As the love of his children and of his remarkable wife, Barbara, who died in April, attest, this approach to politics, to life, came from a place deep within himself. It was woven into his fabric and worn on his sleeve.
This nation, and this city where he made so much of his life, will miss that example of power mixed with wisdom, compassion, and self-sacrifice.
Bush was born to privilege and power, and his boyhood during the Great Depression was as sheltered from the struggles of other Americans as one could imagine. But in that rarefied cocoon, he learned the value of putting others first, and of seemingly old-fashioned patriotism that put country over self. These values would mark his extraordinary life.
On his 18th birthday, he enlisted in the Navy. Less than two years later, in 1944, he was piloting a bomber into Japanese territory when his plane was shot. With the plane in flames, he continued through the run and dropped the bombs on the tower that was his target, then did all he could to fly out to sea. He parachuted out at 2,000 feet, gashed his head on the way down and landed near a life boat. He paddled against the shoreward current out into the open sea long enough to be rescued. He was awarded the Navy’s Distinguished Flying Cross and a host of other decorations.
After the war, not yet 21, he went to Yale, where he played baseball and graduated with honors. With a degree in hand, he went west.
Forty years later, standing in front of the Texas Republican Party state convention, he explained that he had moved to Texas to establish a career and a family of his own, connected but independent of the stillstrong family ties in the East. “When I wanted to learn the ways of the world, I didn’t go to the Kennedy School. I came to Texas, in 1948.”
By then, of course, he was running for president against Michael Dukakis. He had been a congressman from Houston, the nation’s envoy to China, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, director of the CIA and for eight years the vice president to Ronald Reagan. He began the race against Dukakis badly behind, but ended up winning and doing what Al Gore, John McCain and Hillary Clinton couldn’t: follow a two-term president of their own party into the White House.
Bush’s work in Midland and later in Houston as an oil executive took him all over the world. Yet it was the image he struck close to home that put him on a path to politics.
Soon after he moved to Houston, he was recruited by local Republicans to lead the Harris County GOP. He ran for Senate unsuccessfully in 1964 against one of the last truly liberal Texas senators, Ralph Yarborough, then won a seat in Congress in 1966. He served two terms before making a second and bruising run for the Senate in 1970, which he lost to Lloyd Bentsen.
Houston was where he made his home before, during and after his service in Washington. As Richard Ben Cramer wrote in a 1992 profile for Texas Monthly, Nice Guys Finish Last, “In Houston—it was Houston every other weekend, no matter the effort required—the office ladies adored George Bush. Sometimes, if things got slow, Bush would exit his inner office in a flying ballet leap, just to make les gals giggle.”
‘Consensus and contact’
That image of a playful Bush can seem at odds with the more somber demeanor he wore as president, but it’s a reminder of the energy that animated a career that put him in the eye of history’s storms for seven decades.
It also jibes with the political philosophy that ran through his entire career. Personally and politically, he eschewed absolutism. It’s an example today’s politicians, on both the right and the left, would do well to emulate.
If in his private diaries, he dismissed the young Gore as a “far-out extremist” on environmental issues. If he wondered how America could vote for a “draft dodger” like Clinton, he saved his deepest contempt for fire-breathing ideologues like then-Rep. Newt Gingrich, who came to power as a member of the House leadership while Bush was president.
“We’re getting pounded and the right wing is the worst,” Bush wrote in his diary in 1990, after he agreed to a compromise budget bill that included taxes he had tried to avoid. “There is a clump of these extreme extremists that I detest. But I can’t let the bastards get us down. … Push forward.”
Bush’s instinct for fair play, and for solutions over speeches, was more than just a political strategy. It flowed from his personality and was part of his success throughout his career. His biographer, Jon Meacham, called it a penchant for “consensus and contact.” As president, it meant constant phone calls to members of Congress, and invitations for martinis and conversations at the White House.
And while he later acknowledged that he “paid a big price” for breaking the “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge he delivered at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans, he concluded it had been the right call given the circumstances at the time. To his credit, he didn’t minimize the breach of trust. Bush’s pledge was intentionally aimed at winning support of the very conservatives he came to despise.
For all the political turmoil the broken pledge stirred up, it’s also true that once his own budget proposal had failed, backing the Democrat-led plan was the right move. Most economists agree it helped lay the groundwork for the economic lift that took place on Bill Clinton’s watch.
‘The proper balance’
Bush’s record on domestic issues was destined to be mixed, given that he shared power with a Democrat-dominated Congress.
On the world stage, he held the reins. Reagan often gets more credit for ending the Cold War than he deserves. He played a part, and so did Mikhail Gorbachev and the failures of his Soviet predecessors.
But when hardliners in the Soviet Union lost patience with Gorbachev’s historic reforms and staged a coup, it was Bush who convinced our NATO allies to not provoke a new revolution as Boris Yeltsin emerged as a force for democratization.
Meacham concludes in Bush’s biography that the peaceful resolution of the Soviet coup “was a ratification of his essential diplomatic instincts of balance and moderation.” “We could have over-reacted and moved troops and scared the hell out of people,” Bush wrote in his diary. “We could have under-reacted by saying, ‘Well, we’ll deal with whoever is there.’ But … I think we found the proper balance.”
More than balance, what Bush exuded was the strength that came from the coupling of conviction and collaboration. He was often challenged as a wimp, but his life — from athlete to decorated bomber pilot to risk-taking entrepreneur and politician to nonagenarian skydiver — defied that caricature at every leap.
It’s a lesson in the shortcomings of image-makers that the U.S. is well-acquainted with these days. We seem to have become increasingly enthralled by the take-noprisoners approach to politics that repulsed Bush. Recently, we’ve seen the ease with which a candidate can hide behind rhetoric and simplistic solutions.
Bush, for all his human foibles and occasional inadequacies, was the real deal. He was an American hero, an underrated president and a Texan in the grittiest sense.
While this city, and this nation, will miss him dearly, we must not assume his passing signals a bygone era. This melancholy nation needs more than ever those thousand points of light Bush used to talk about.
Those of us who still value integrity, service and duty to country over party must reflect on Bush’s example, celebrate it and spread like stars across the nation to push forward.