“The American public did not send us here to bicker.”
– President George H.W. Bush, in his inaugural address
George H.W. Bush became our nation’s 41st president with one of the strongest résumés of anyone to ever hold the office: He was a war hero, oil industry businessman, Texas congressman, diplomat, CIA chief and two-term vice president.
And though he and his family reportedly hate the words “dynasty” and “legacy,” he leaves both.
Bush, who died Friday at the age of 94, saw his son, former Texas Gov. George W. Bush, ascend to the presidency just eight years after the elder Bush failed to win a second term. The elder Bush remained a senior statesmen after leaving office, often working with the man who defeated him, Bill Clinton, on charitable causes ranging from tsunami relief in Southeast Asia to Hurricane Katrina relief during the younger Bush’s presidency.
And despite being overshadowed by the man he served as vice president – Ronald Reagan – and losing a second term for going back on his “read my lips, no new taxes” promise, Bush 41 served as president during a time of global change; his skills as a diplomat were crucial abroad and at home in these uncharted waters.
Bush led the United States while the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended. He worked with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and other global leaders as communist governments fell apart and democratically elected governments took their place in eastern Europe. He sent American troops to remove General Manuel Noriega, who was transforming the country that controlled the Panama Canal into a drug-running criminal enterprise.
His popularity as president soared with the coalition victory over Iraq. Bush had worked with the United Nations and successfully put together a military coalition in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in late 1990. The coalition unleashed an air campaign and a five-day ground campaign that forced Iraqi forces from Kuwait in early 1991. Bush decided not to go all the way and toss Saddam Hussein from power, believing it would bring instability to the region.
Back in D.C., Bush brought us a groundbreaking Americans with Disabilities Act and a new Clean Air Act. He put a wrecked saving and loan industry back together and got a $123.8 billion bailout through a Democrat-controlled Congress. But when seven years of economic growth ended about the time the Iraq crisis began, Bush’s popularity began to fall as the economy worsened. He angered many members of his own party when he went against that “no new taxes” pledge he had made during the 1988 campaign and, for all the right reasons, cut a budget-reduction deal with Congress. His work cut the deficit by nearly $500 billion over five years.
Bush would likely classify his myriad accomplishments as simply a commitment to service of his country.
Bush joined the Navy at 18 when he heard Pearl Harbor had been attacked, and would become a fighter pilot in World War II. He was shot down Sept. 2, 1944, was the only airman on the mission to survive and received the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism under fire. The commitment to service continued to motivate his professional career and, post-presidency, he encouraged others to commit to service through his Points of Light foundation, the name and intent taken from his 1989 inauguration speech: “I will go to the people and the programs that are the brighter points of light, and I’ll ask every member of my government to become involved. The old ideas are new again because they’re not old, they are timeless: duty, sacrifice, commitment, and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part and pitching in.”
That service, his CIA penchant to work quietly, and his ultimate civility are what set Bush 41 apart and lie in stark contrast to today’s divisive times. Amazing today, his letter in his final hours in office to Clinton wished him success because it would mean America’s success.
As Time magazine proclaimed Saturday, “George H.W. Bush Accomplished Much More as President Than He Ever Got Credit For.” And syndicated columnist Cal Thomas wrote this week that “we are not likely to see his kind again.” The fact Bush was more interested in listening and doing, rather than grabbing credit and creating a legacy, is what made him the right type of leader at the right time – nay, at any time.
And our nation is the better for him. Godspeed.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.