Bush’s ca­reer looms as large as that of any pub­lic fig­ure in re­cent mem­ory.

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - OUTLOOK -

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.

Early life

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.

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