George H.W. Bush was, literally and figuratively, a man from a different era. Both his mannerisms and his manners are hardly recognizable in today’s miserable politics. It’s not that he was the last good man to serve in the White House — his son, George W. Bush and the son’s successor, Barack Obama, were both good and decent men, whatever criticisms anyone may have had of their politics. But the elder Bush carried with him a sensibility and trustworthiness that came from an earlier, less cynical time when people, even presidents, might write thank-you notes by hand and use words like “prudent.”
Bush, the 41st president of the United States, died Friday after a life that was long, eventful, influential and useful. He was 94. One wonders if a man such as he could win the presidency today.
His resume is startling. While the presidency was his capstone, it followed service as vice president to Ronald Reagan, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, chief of the U.S. Liaison Office to the People’s Republic of China, chairman of the Republican National Committee, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and congressman from Texas. He was the son of a U.S. senator and father of two governors, one of whom became president.
He served in the Pacific in World War II, once parachuting from his plane which had been attacked and set afire. He parachuted at least four more times, on his 75th, 80th, 85th and 90th birthdays. Those jumps betrayed a restless and competitive spirit that age did not slake and that his New England upbringing otherwise concealed from easy view.
His character was well described by the gracious note he left in the Oval Office for the man who ousted him from the presidency, Bill Clinton. Even more telling, perhaps, is the friendship he later developed with Clinton, a notably flawed man in whom Bush nonetheless saw qualities that overcame those defects. Like the friendship between the younger Bush and the Obamas, that cross-party camaraderie serves both as an example for the nation and a gentle rebuke of today’s poison politics.
His prudence was displayed both in his gathering of a coalition of nations to counter Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and, equally significant, in his decision not to enter Iraq after liberating Kuwait. The wisdom of that choice has been ratified, over and over, in the expensive and dangerous aftermath of the younger Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Bush also led the country through the tumultuous end of the Cold War, when the Berlin Wall came down, Germany was reunified and the Soviet Union fell apart. It was a time of both hope and uncertainty. Bush’s steady hand helped guide the country and the world through those fraught days.
Bush was devoted to his family, so much that it seemed to many that he might quickly fail after the death of his beloved wife Barbara in April. He was admitted to a hospital the day after her funeral for treatment of a blood infection, though he said at the time that he wasn’t ready to go.
At his death, he was suffering from a form of Parkinson’s disease, which restricted him to a wheelchair or scooter and made speaking difficult. Still, it’s hard to believe that heartbreak didn’t have something to do with his death, just seven months after his wife’s.
Perhaps the best measure of Bush’s character and his leadership is that even his adversaries have only good to say about him. He wasn’t perfect. He made political mistakes. But he was good enough and, indeed, much better than that.
Bush gave decades of valuable service to his country, which could repay the debt by insisting that character and temperament such as his serve as models everywhere in American public life.