The passing of a former president is always a momentous occasion, a time to put politics aside, pause, and reflect on where we have been, and where we are going.
If there is one word to sum up the public life of George Herbert Walker Bush, it would be service. It didn’t have to be that way, Bush was born into a family that “had” in an era where many “had not.” But the future president was raised not to boast about individual achievement or advantage, rather to be polite and contribute to the greater good.
It was that commitment that led the young Bush to enlist in the Navy as soon as he was able following Pearl Harbor, becoming youngest naval aviator at the time. He flew fifty-eight combat missions and earned a Distinguished Flying Cross. On one such mission he was shot down, losing his crew, but himself surviving several hours until picked up by a submarine.
“Why had I been spared and what did God have for me?" He later wrote.
Two-term congressman from Texas, ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee, United States envoy to China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency and vice president, under Ronald Reagan. And, then, of course, President of the United States.
The last of the World War II generation to have held the office, Bush was remarkably relatable. He was a pragmatist. He once threw up in another world leader’s lap during an important state event. He didn’t eat his broccoli. He made fun of himself on Saturday Night Live. He learned how to skydive at 75 and celebrated major birthdays by jumping from airplanes. He enjoyed speedboating. And, of course, spending time with his wife of 73 years, Barbara, who passed away in April.
Like his son, also a former president — “43” to his “41” in Bush speak — he was prone to “Bushisms.” “Fluency in English is something that I'm often not accused of,” he once said.
He faced dark times. He lost a 3-year-old daughter to cancer, and at least one of his kids struggled with addiction. Yet he persevered through it all with quiet stoicism, grace and dignity, persuading the country that whatever happened, he could handle it. It was that steady hand on the tiller when the Cold War ended, and that forged a coalition to stand up to Saddam Hussein’s Kuwait invasion.
From his advocacy of volunteerism — a thousand points of light — to his calls for a kinder, gentler America and his support for life-changing legislation like the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Clean Air Act, President George H.W. Bush demonstrated that presidents from both parties can — and should — care about the environment and the less fortunate, and look for ways that government can set the country on a more just and compassionate course.
The criticism he faced for not pursuing and toppling the Hussein regime now looks wise in hindsight, but coupled with dissatisfaction in the economy, and a broken promise not to raise taxes, Bush was sent back home to Kennebunkport after just one term. It was a bitter, hard fought, personal campaign, and it stung, but he still found time to write a gracious note to his successor.
Rather than languish in retirement, that call of duty he felt all his life would help him shrug off losing the presidency and forge one of the unlikeliest bonds of recent political memory, a friendship with the man who had defeated him, Bill Clinton. At the request of his then-president son, the former opponents teamed up in an effort that transcended partisanship, first in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and later, those hit by Hurricane Katrina.
In 2016, Bush made headlines by shaving his head in support of a 2-year-old boy battling leukemia. The boy was the son of a member of his security detail.
“A lot of the agents shaved their head,” he said at the time. “I said, ‘Well why not me?’ It was the right thing to do.”
The right thing to do. And one more example of the lifelong, steadfast and good-hearted leadership President Bush exemplified in both his personal and public lives. In our age of political division, he serves as a reminder that our nation is much better served by leaders who inspire the best in us rather than the worst.