George H.W. Bush: war hero, GOP workhorse and president who called for ‘kinder, gentler nation’


Aided by his patrician upbringing as the son of a Connecticut senator, George Herbert Walker Bush, known as “Poppy” to family and friends, was a driven and pragmatic politician who struggled to inspire the nation with clearly articulated policies. He had a stellar resume, methodically rising through the ranks of elective and appointive offices, but never fully grasping “the vision thing” as he put it.

Bush always seemed to be at the right place at the right time as he deliberately built up his credentials through the years, culminating in his election as the nation’s 41st president in 1988.

{mosads}Following Pearl Harbor, the 18-year-old Bush volunteered for the U.S. Navy as an aviator. Two years later he was forced to parachute from a fighter plane in 1944 when it was shot down by the Japanese.

For the next 20 years, he turned his attention to graduating from Yale University, getting married, having kids, and making money in the oil business in Texas.

In 1964, he ran for and lost a race for the U.S. Senate in Texas. But two years later, he was back into politics with his election to the U.S. House of Representatives.

He was viewed as an up-and-comer, and President Richard Nixon convinced him to give up his congressional seat to run for the Senate in 1970. He lost again.

But Nixon, who valued Bush’s loyalty to the GOP, appointed the two-term congressman as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations where he gained valuable foreign policy experience for two years.

From there, Nixon tapped him as chairman of the Republican National Committee during the Watergate years, putting him in touch with party loyalists who would help his later political career.

His next port-of-call was a two-year stint as Chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in China, further cementing his foreign affairs credentials.

The competent, moderate, and increasingly experienced Bush then landed as director of the CIA for two years.

Along his journey, Bush’s name was on the table as a serious contender as Nixon’s vice-presidential running mate in 1968 instead of Spiro Agnew. And Bush was almost selected as Gerald Ford’s running mate in the 1976 campaign.

Close to power and politics for years, Bush was infected with the presidential bug and launched a bid for president in 1980. He lost the nomination to Ronald Reagan, but was selected as Reagan’s running mate. Victorious in that campaign, he won the presidency after Reagan’s two terms, becoming the first vice-president since Martin Van Buren more than 150 years earlier to catapult directly from the vice-presidency into the Oval Office. And like Van Buren before him, he was defeated for re-election to a second term, when Bill Clinton ousted him in 1992.

Bush entered the Oval Office with a well-framed resume: war hero, congressman, party chairman, foreign policy expert, and chief spymaster. In one sense, however, it was just a resume. Bush was not a natural politician or campaigner like Reagan, Bill Clinton, or John F. Kennedy, who he once met. His impatient glance at his watch in the middle of a presidential debate in 1992 revealed a man anxious to get back to work, and uncomfortable with the bruising banter of politics.

Despite having deep roots in the Republican Party from his days as party chairman, Bush was viewed suspiciously by the increasingly right-tilting party faithful who viewed him as too moderate. Trying to convince the GOP that he was hardcore, he declared in his 1988 nomination acceptance speech that he would not raise taxes, famously stating “Read my lips. No new taxes.” They were words he would have to eat later.

In 2016, the former GOP party chair and Republican president quietly bolted from the party that had given him his rise by voting for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton for president instead of Donald Trump. He was a Republican but was an American first, and displayed his pragmatic and reasonable nature in that vote.

Bush lived to 94 and claimed the record as the oldest former president, surpassing Gerald Ford’s record in November 2017. Bush seemingly tempted age and fear.

{mossecondads}His idea of a birthday tradition for years — perhaps much to the consternation of his family — was to parachute out of an airplane. It’s something he did on his 75th, 80th, 85th, and even 90th birthday, despite wrestling with the ravages of Parkinson’s disease. He jumped, fully remembering that when he and a fellow aviator bailed out of a smoking Navy fighter in 1944, his colleague’s parachute failed to open.

If Bush’s parachute birthday parties tempted fate, his contrarian diet for years wasn’t supposed to increase longevity. He ate junk food, ate quickly, and ate large quantities. And he famously and publicly banned broccoli from the White House and Air Force One, despite its known health benefits.

”I do not like broccoli. And I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m president of the United States, and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli!” he once said.

While Bush will be remembered for his bold but broken promise of “no new taxes” and his disdain for broccoli, he promoted two significant concepts of American public life.

In the incivility and viciousness often associated with the age of Trump, Bush called for a “kinder, gentler nation” in both his GOP acceptance speech and inaugural address. It reflected the core of who he was as a person and his hope to promote a rational, moderate, and civic discourse.

And like Herbert Hoover before him who promoted the importance of volunteerism in American life, Bush memorialized the notion in both his 1988 acceptance speech and his inaugural address by recognizing the good work done by volunteer organizations and calling for more with his imagery of “a thousand points of light.” He handed out “Points of Light” awards during his presidency and helped found the still enduring Points of Light Foundation to promote volunteerism to address societal issues.

Bush was the last Republican presidential statesman, brilliantly assembling an international coalition to address Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. He was also the last World War II veteran to serve as president.

George H.W. Bush was a well-meaning but charismatically-challenged workhorse. Despite his stellar GOP credentials, he would never have made it in today’s political vortex. He was too reasonable, too moderate, too kind and gentle. He was a technocrat and an organization manager — not an inspiring visionary offering red meat to the disenchanted. But he was always the available man for new slots as his career advanced.

“All the best” is how the well-connected Bush concluded his many letters to decades of friends and acquaintances, and is also the title of his 1999 book compiling his correspondence. And “all the best” is what he gave to the nation over a lifetime of devoted service.

Mike Purdy is a presidential historian, the founder of Purdy is the author of a forthcoming book “Fathead: Insults by the Presidents About the Presidents.”

Tags Bill Clinton Bush 41 Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Mike Purdy Oval Office Presidency White House

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