Former President George Herbert Walker Bush has died at age 94, outliving Barbara, his wife of 73 years, by only a few months. Bush served one term as US president from 1988 to 1992. Bush was a WWII naval aviator, congressman, ambassador to the UN and China, CIA director, and vice president under Ronald Reagan. It was a life spent mostly in the service of the public, outside a stint as a businessman during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Bush was the last living WWII veteran who served as president, and in fact was the last living combat veteran of any conflict who served as president. Carter, Clinton, Obama, and Trump did not serve in the military, and George W. Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War and did not see any combat duty.
Bush also represented the last of the 20th Century Ivy League graduates (Yale) that served in the military and turned eventually to politics. His service marked the end of an era that featured a number of luminaries, including President Theodore Roosevelt (Harvard), who raised his own regiment to fight in the Spanish-American War. By the end of the 1960’s Ivy League schools were dominated in the faculty and among the student ranks by draft dodging liberals (e.g. fellow Yale graduate and cartoonist Garry Trudeau) and leftists who eschewed military service. But between 1776 and 1955 the Ivy League schools turned out more military officers and servicemen than almost any other group of schools. Bush actually served before attending Yale, but I am still including him in the latter group.
The day after Bush’s death most newspapers and media outlets have focused on the former president’s dedication to mutlilateralism–political maneuvering that included folks from all points of view. Bush loathed partisan bickering and politicking and spent his public career forging alliances in order to advance his agenda. It was a skill that benefited Ronald Reagan during his presidency and then his own son during the younger Bush’s presidency. And it was a skill utterly lacking in the the last two administrations–Obama and Trump.
Bush was the last president from the Greatest Generation–a term coined by former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw. Every president since then has been a Baby Boomer, and each one, with the possible exception perhaps of George W. Bush, has run their administrations with the unilateral selfishness best known to be a hallmark of that generation. Even the younger Bush has to wear the millstone of the false-weapons-of-mass-destruction narrative from the second Iraq war–a narrative that arose strictly out of a partisan viewpoint. Now all of us view the older Bush’s administration with nostalgia that seemed impossible at that time.
Arguably, Bush could take some credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union, the economic policies that led to the economic and technological explosion of 1996 to 2007, and shrinking budget deficits during the Clinton administration. Thus it is with some irony that Bush failed to win a second term in office because of the recession that occurred during his first and only term.
The former president was a dogged competitor politically, and thrived in spite of losing a Senate race and the aforementioned second presidential race. But he never abandoned his values and ethics. He was arguably the first compassionate conservative–a term coined during the younger Bush’s years in office and later derided by Tea Party conservatives. But it was more important to Bush to be as inclusive as possible in helping his fellow Americans than it was to score political points with the fringe. It was those values that he passed down to his children–values that were in part responsible for one son taking back the Oval Office and another serving as governor of Florida.
There were missteps too. Bush, like John McCain did years later with Sarah Palin, chose a telegenic political novice to be his running mate in 1988. He got away with the pick when riding Reagan’s coattails, but it came back to haunt him in 1992 after Clinton had four years of Quayle’s gaffes to capitalize on. His decision to pull strings to get his son George W. Bush an Air National Guard commission in the 1970’s rather than having him enter regular Air Force service (in those days National Guard service meant avoiding combat tours–something that changed in the 21st Century) during the Vietnam War almost cost the younger Bush the presidency (twice) and tarnished both mens’ reputation unnecessarily.
Nevertheless, Bush was an American who lived for his countrymen, and his countrymen benefited. He stood in stark contrast to people like long time CBS news correspondent Morley Safer, who sneered at the United States even while he reaped the rewards of its political and economic system. Bush was the son of a Connecticut senator and the scion of a wealthy New England family who could have draped himself with the privileged trappings of his inheritance and family connections. Instead he moved to Texas to make his own fortune and found instead his true calling in public service. The news media in the 1980’s and 1990’s dismissed Bush as an anachronism and politically hapless in his effort to gain reelection. History will likely prove to be much kinder to Bush’s legacy.