President George Herbert Walker Bush died on Friday, and given the rancorous political rhetoric of today we were pleased to see how very respectful all the obituaries and public comments have been. Even the news media that were most critical of Bush over his long career in public service duly acknowledged his many historic accomplishments, and all his past foes joined his many friends in praising the man’s patriotic character. This will probably be the last time we see any American sent off with such bipartisan praise, and we fear it marks the passing on era when that was not only possible but fairly commonplace.
Bush was born 94 years ago in a bygone era of genteel New England Republicanism, the son of a wealthy businessman and future Senator and a socialite mother, and was educated in the best schools that a wealthy New England family could buy. As a star student and promising athlete he was admitted to the elite Yale University, but against his parents’ wishes he volunteered for the Navy at the outset of World War II, became one of the military’s youngest aviators, and came back with medals never wore and heroic tales he rarely told about parachuting from a burning plane and being luckily rescued by a submarine that happened to be nearby. At long last enrolled at Yale, he was a Phi Beta Kappa student and the captain and star first baseman of the school’s championship-contending baseball team. He also wed the shy but attractive socialite Barbara Pierce, a descendant of President Franklin Pierce, and they stayed married and quite obviously in love for the rest of their lives.
Instead of taking his Yale education and distinguished war record to Wall Street or an academic sinecure or some other obvious choice for wealthy New Englander, Bush went west to a particularly barren portion of west Texas to make his fortune in the rough-and-tumble oil business, and wound doing quite well for himself and his growing family. By age 40 he figured he’d made enough money to let the investment income accrue, and with an old New England sense of noblesse oblige he commenced one of the most remarkable careers of public service in American history.
Bush started in the humble position of Harris County, Texas’ Republican party, and lost his first race for the House of Representatives shortly thereafter. He won the seat two years later, a rare feat for a Texas Republican way back in ’66, an in two terms earned reputation as a centrist who voted for civil rights legislation he’d earlier opposed and bucked the party’s position on birth control but backed President Richard Nixon’s controversial Vietnam policies. At Nixon’s urging Bush ran for the Senate in ’70, and lost to Democratic nominee Lloyd Bentsen — more about that later — but was rewarded with an appointment to be ambassador to the United Nations. He served as national chairman of the Republican party during the Watergate, somehow keeping his reputation intact, and was then head liaison to China just after Nixon famously normalized relations, and was then the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
With such an impressive resume Bush was considered a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980, but there was already an anti-establishment sentiment brewing in the party, and he lost to former California governor and far more forcefully conservative Ronald Reagan. Although it had been a hard-fought primary campaign by both sides, Reagan chose Bush as his running mate, partly to appease the still-potent establishment wing of the party, and partly because of Bush’s impressive resume. The choice worked out well for the Republican party, with Reagan winning two landslides and Bush earning a third term parties rarely win, beating the ticket of Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis and the aforementioned Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. Even his harshest critics of the time now agree it worked out pretty well for the rest of the world, too, with Reagan’s aggressive policies winning the Cold War and Bush’s more cautious diplomacy successfully negotiating the peace.
Bush’s long experience of foreign policy brought other masterstrokes. Although it was controversial at the time, his decision to invade Panama and arrest its dictator after several provocations was carried out with stunning efficiency and looks good in retrospect, and no one in Panama is griping about it. When the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait in violation of international law and basic human decency, Bush drew a famous line in the sand, and enforced it with an undeniable brilliance. He won the approval of both Russia and China and the rest of the UN’s Security Council to fight the aggression, assembled an international coalition of nations that included all the keys players in the Middle East, then unleashed a near-perectly conceived military plan that drove the Iraqi army out of Kuwait before the first anti-war protest could be organized. Casualties were miraculously low, international law had been enforced, America’s world leadership was unchallenged, and Bush briefly enjoyed a record-setting 90 percent approval rating.
The public is fickle, though, and when the Reagan economic boom eventually ran into an inevitable recession Bush got the blame for the business cycle. The recession was relatively brief and mild by historical standards, and was largely over by the time Bush’s re-election day arrived, but he’d be hammered by the press for the pardons he issued to everyone involved in the unfortunate but now largely forgotten Iran-Contra scandal, and it was easy to caricature him as a well-heeled New Englander who didn’t understand the common folk. He had the misfortunate to run not only against “Slick Willie” Clinton, a Yale-educated snake oil salesman from small town Arkansa who could bite his lip and convince the common folk he felt their pain, but also the independent candidate Ross Perot, a megalomaniacal billionaire who told the anti-establishment sorts of Republicans who’d long distrusted Bush’s kinder and gentler conservatism everything they wanted to hear. Thus Bush became the most consequential and respected-by-history one-term president since John Adams.
Bush wasn’t one to seek revenge, but he got a small measure of it when his eldest son, George W. Bush, won the presidency after Clinton’s two peaceful and prosperous but scandal-ridden terms, becoming the first son of a president to win the office since John Quincy Adams. That’s a whole ‘nother story, as they say down in Texas, and it will continue to be rewritten long after the younger Bush’s obituaries are published, but the elder Bush’s popularity grew through his retirement. In keeping with the longstanding traditions that Bush always kept, he kept his political opinions mostly to himself through the Clinton and Bush and Obama administrations, and instead devoted his considerable energy to bipartisan good deeds. With no political opinions in the way people came to further appreciate his sunny disposition and impeccable manners, his love of God and family and country, and everything he embodied about the bygone era of noblesse oblige and New England Republicanism.
One of the endearing little details in all the respectful obituaries is about Bush’s friendship with the comedian Dana Carvey, who used to do a hilariously satirical impersonation of Bush on the “Saturday Night Live” show. Most politicians would have found it offensive, but Bush found it hilarious, and he invited Carvey to the shtick at the White House correspondent’s dinner and other events. After he lost his reelection bid he asked his friend to do the routine at the White House, and Carvey tearfully recalls it was because Bush though his staff needed some cheering up. The famous catch phrase of Carvey’s impersonation was “Nah, nah, not gonna do it, wouldn’t be prudent,” but as even The Washington Post duly noted, Bush’s greatest gift to America was his prudence, a quality currently out of style.
Even President Donald Trump is respectfully noting Bush’s death, and we’re glad to see that. Bush was the quintessence of the Republican establishment and the “globalist” foreign policy that Trump ran against, and he’d criticized the elder Bush’s decision not to topple Hussein and then falsely accused the younger Bush of lying America into a war to topple Hussein, and he’d ridiculed the “low energy” of another prominent Bush family member who sought the presidency. Trump isn’t one to let a family feud rest, but at least he seems to know better than to invite any comparisons at this moment in time.
— Bud Norman</p