George H.W. Bush was taught from a young age to be self-effacing. Most famously by his mother, but also from a society that prioritized selfless sacrifice over selfish aggrandizement.
Although his heroism during World War II was a defining chapter in his lifetime of service to his country, Bush rarely discussed it. In fact, he usually eschewed focus on his impressive accomplishments, including private-sector success in the oil business and public-sector accomplishments as a congressman, CIA director, ambassador to the United Nations and to China, chairman of the Republican Party, vice president and the nation’s 41st president.
Indeed, Bush was perhaps the most prepared president ever to take office, and in particular with foreign policy it showed. Especially regarding his role in peacefully ending the Cold War, when Bush’s famous prudence gained the trust of Mikhail Gorbachev as the Soviet Union dissolved back into Russia (and soon, chaos). Or when he helped guide German reunification, a move actively advocated by European nations that would have once recoiled at the prospect.
These coalition-building skills came from Bush’s belief in alliances, which was invaluable as he assembled a true global coalition to liberate Kuwait. That he didn’t go into Iraq and prosecute the war further was a reflection of wise limits and a sense of the threat such mission creep could pose to U.S. forces — lessons his son, former President George W. Bush, failed to heed.
George H.W. Bush was less successful on domestic policy — or at least the political ramifications of it. He famously (or infamously, to his dogmatic detractors) broke his “read my lips, no-new-taxes” pledge, which likely cost him re-election. But reflecting his service ethos, he did the right thing, and set up a robust recovery and eventual surplus that his successor, former President Bill Clinton, got too much credit for.
Recessions are transitory. But landmark legislation to improve the environment, such as the revised Clear Air Act, and the lives of the disabled, through the Americans with Disabilities Act, are more profound, and Bush deserves credit for their passage.
Unlike today’s “permanent campaign,” politics seemed distinct from governance to Bush. He mostly practiced both effectively — although he sometimes lacked the rectitude in which he carried himself. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign, for instance, carried corrosive racial overtones that sullied the country and Bush himself. There were other missteps as well, which Bush himself acknowledged by saying, “We got some good things done, and I made some mistakes” — an admirable assessment that reflected Bush’s willingness to refract success but individualize failures.
Along with his reticence to trumpet his heroism or political courage, Bush also downplayed references to his worldview, derisively dismissing it as “the vision thing.” Bush had a very clear, and usually correct, sense of America’s place and responsibility in the world — and each generation’s duty to sustain it.
This wasn’t done alone. Bush didn’t denigrate government service, but instead valued experience and competence. He trusted some of America’s finest public servants, including former Secretary of State James Baker and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, to serve America alongside him.
Long lines at the Capitol, where Bush lies in state, reflect mourning for a former president, but seemingly also for an era of Greatest Generation sacrifice and what the former president himself may have called a kinder, gentler political discourse.
If today’s leaders are inspired by his example, it would be a fitting coda to a lifetime of service.