The late president is fondly recalled by San Antonio officials.
George H.W. Bush is remembered as being ‘unfailingly kind,’ ‘true American statesman’
During Joe Straus’ time in the Texas House, the retiring speaker and San Antonio state representative said he kept one maxim in mind: “There could be no definition of a successful life that does not include service to others.”
It was uttered by former Presi- dent George H.W. Bush, who Straus said he has known for most of his life. His mother, Joci Straus, had been a friend and supporter of George and Barbara Bush since the 1960s.
“He inspired my public service,” Straus said. “I’ve kept pictures of him in my office here and in the Capitol so I would be constantly reminded of what a true public servant was.”
Straus was one of many elected officials from San Antonio to celebrate Bush’s life Saturday. Mayor Ron Nirenberg called Bush “a true American statesman.” state Rep. Lyle Larson called him “one of the finest gentlemen we have ever had as our president.”
Congressman Henry Cuellar, whose district includes part of the Alamo City, said his “unyielding leadership, commitment and servitude to his family and to our country will be matched by none.”
A resident of Houston, Bush also cemented a legacy in San Antonio and South-Central Texas. One of his landmark initiatives as president was realized here, when Bush signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in October 1992.
The agreement later was ratified under President Bill Clinton.
“This meeting marks a turning point in the history of our three countries,” Bush told the ceremony’s audience then, gathering at the Plaza San Antonio Hotel Conference Center with Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. “We are creating the largest, richest and most productive market in the entire world.”
His son George W. Bush said in 1992 that the agreement would “change San Antonio for the better for a long time coming” and called the agreement “the singlemost important achievement of
George Bush’s presidency in regards to Texas.”
Straus, who had left his post at Bush’s Commerce Department but helped with the arrangements of the ceremony, said it was important to the president that it was held in San Antonio.
“As I recall, it was something that meant a lot to President Bush. I think he very much wanted to have it here,” Straus said. “While there were some people who wanted him to have it in Houston, I think he knew … that San Antonio was a much better cultural fit.”
In a twist, the three countries signed a revised agreement negotiated by President Donald Trump earlier Friday, though each country’s legislature still must approve the deal. Trump long disparaged NAFTA as a disaster.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who was mayor at the time of the 1992 signing, said the ceremony helped put San Antonio on the map. He recalled eating dinner and talking baseball with the president, who captained Yale University’s team as a student.
“He was a real classy guy,” Wolff said. “He had a demeanor that’s missing in politics today. He set a standard for ethical conduct and how to conduct yourself as president of the United States.”
Straus said the Bushes had friends in every pocket of the country, and San Antonio was no exception.
David Bates, a San Antonio resident for 25 years, was a personal aide to Bush when he was running for president in 1980 and later served as deputy chief of staff and secretary to the Cabinet during his presidency.
Bates grew up alongside Jeb Bush in Houston. When Bates was graduating law school in 1978, the elder Bush had a political action committee and was stumping for candidates across the country while considering a presidential run.
The committee had two employees, Bates said, including its director, Carl Rove, who wanted to spend more time in the office. That meant Bush needed a traveling companion, and Bates happily filled that role.
“We traveled all over the country, and about mid-October 1978 … I knew he was going to do it,” Bates said about Bush’s bid for president in 1980, which he would lose to President Ronald Reagan. “I asked if I could keep working for him as a personal aide.”
Bush was the finest man he ever knew, Bates said. As an elected official, he always put what was best for the country above himself.
“Every decision he made, it was what’s best for the country. We’ll sort out the politics, but … that was his north star.”
The perfect example, Bates said, was when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Political advisers and Capitol Hill denizens urged him to go to Germany to celebrate, but Bush resisted, according to Bates.
“He said, that’s the last thing I should do right now. Gorbachev does not need this rubbed in his face,” Bates said. “He’s got a very restive Soviet military that’s probably very unhappy about this happening.”
Perhaps nowhere was Bush’s connection to San Antonio more evident than in his decadeslong relationship with the Strauses, one of the city’s own political powerhouse families.
In addition to serving in the Commerce Department, Joe Straus also was an advance man for thenVice President Bush. He said Bush governed with strength and pragmatism and made difficult decisions when they weren’t politically convenient.
“He was a pragmatic politician,” he said. “People forget that when he was elected president, he had a Democratic majority in the House and the Senate, and he still got an awful lot done. That’s a talent that’s sorely lacking in politics today.”
Just as importantly, Straus said he was “unfailingly kind.”
“He probably doesn’t get enough credit for his sense of humor and for just being a really good friend to so many people,” Straus said. “That’s what made him an effective politician. He never forgot a face or a name.”
Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, left, greets President George H.W. Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in San Antonio in 1992.
Vice President Bush, who was seeking the Oval Office at that time, arrives via barge for a rally at the Arneson River Theater.
Bush holds Julie Taylor after picking her out of the crowd during a visit to San Antonio to endorse the candidacy of Lamar Smith for the Senate in 1986.