Of kindness and humility: George H.W. Bush
James Baker was among late President George H.W. Bush's best friends. They had known each other since the 1950s. Baker would head campaigns for him and served in his administration. Baker liked to say that Bush was the only president ever elected primarily because he was just a nice guy.
The late President Bush was much more, of course. He embodied the Greatest Generation. The youngest American Navy pilot in WWII, the young Texas oilman turned politician, the American U.N. ambassador, the American envoy to China, the head of the CIA, the vice president and then president — what an American life.
Kind, oh yes. But he was also tough, certainly a tough, competitive campaigner. His campaign threw out the Willie Horton ad that helped sink Michael Dukakis in '88, called Bill Clinton and Al Gore bozos, and, before that, called Reagan's tax-cut plan voodoo economics. He didn't back down from a fight. But you don't become president if you're afraid of a fight — and if you can't land punches when you're in one.
If you watched any TV over the weekend on the life of the former president, who died at age 94 Friday, you likely heard his friends, his son and former president, and assorted historians putting forth that 41 was the best one-term president in our country's history. The arguments are strong.
Bush's management of the end of the Cold War — the most important foreign policy event in our nation since the end of World War II — was nothing less than "brilliant," according to Colin Powell. In 1989, as the Soviet Union dissolved, the Berlin wall went down and Germany began reunification efforts, many GOP leaders urged the president to boast, to claim victory for the USA and President Reagan specifically. After all, it had been a four-decade slog. But Bush knew that American boasting at this point would serve no positive purpose, would only pour gasoline on a tenuous situation that could easily ignite. Instead, the cool, calm of the U.S. in the late 1980s allowed the world to peacefully shift and realign.
Two years later, President Bush's foreign policy brilliance would again shine through. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, Bush told the world "this will not stand." Instead of egotistically taking on the challenge alone, his administration masterfully built a coalition of more than 30 countries. After five weeks of surgical air attacks, the ground forces rolled. Within 100 hours, the war was over. Kuwait was liberated and American military might and capability, post Cold War, was unquestioned.
But our presidents, it seems, are often at the fate of luck, of timing, whether for good or bad. Our nation was fortunate George H.W. Bush was at the helm at the fall of the Soviet Union, and two years later when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
But luck would turn for the president about that same time. The economy started to tank. The budget deficits brought on during the Reagan policies were escalating. Bush was forced to break his "no new taxes" pledge and sign a Democratic-backed budget plan. It alienated conservatives. After 12 years of Reagan-Bush, the nation seemed open to change. The Democrats, who seemed to have very little chance of winning the White House during the Desert Storm days, nominated a little-known governor from Arkansas, Bill Clinton. A billionaire darling of conservatives, Ross Perot, also joined the fray.
Time and politics are indeed fickle, and in 1992, it was time for a new era, a new generation. George H.W. Bush became a one-term president.
But one of the most golden of the boys of the Greatest Generation, George Bush wasn't done serving the nation he loved. In 2004, his son, now president, asked him to work side by side with the man who defeated him, Bill Clinton, to raise money to address the many needs after the tsunami in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The elder Bush and Clinton would become beacons of what's best about our nation throughout the world, living proof that the stark political differences within our people doesn't hinder the greatness of what we can do together.
Isn't that how we should reflect upon our presidents, whether one term or two, if they inspired us, if they served with dignity, if they upheld the spirit and ideals of our great country?
In his 1989 inaugural speech, President Bush said this: "America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world."
On the day he died, his great friend James Baker was among those at his side.
"Where are we going today, Bake?" the former president asked.
"To heaven, we're going to heaven," replied Baker.
"That's where I want to go," he said … assuredly in a voice quiet yet confident, and without a hint of a boast.
by Tony Ahern, publisher