December 2, 2018

George H.W. Bush: Among the Best of the Greatest Generation

by Hal Gershowitz

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Of Thee I Sing Heading AuthorsWe’ll miss George Herbert Walker Bush, more than we can imagine right now. As President, he was much better than “good,” and in time, history may well view him as one of our near great Presidents. The lofty Great designation seems to be forever reserved for Presidents Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt for whom reverence was won as they led amidst our greatest wars.

But President Bush 41 was not so distant from greatness.  He finished what President Reagan began by forging a remarkable relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who is most responsible for finally ending a dark era in Russia that began with the fall of the Romanoff’s in 1917.  The costly and dangerous arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union was ended by the rapport and trust these two men established. Gorbachev was right on the money in his praise of the late President. “Many of my memories are linked to him. We worked together in years of great change. It was a dramatic time demanding huge responsibility from everyone. The result was the end of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race,” Gorbachev said.

George H.W. Bush brought a balance of humility, dignity and modesty to the Oval office. He had a great sense of history and knew the office was greater than the person who occupied it.

President  Bush would have easily won a second term but for the mischievous intrusion of Ross Perot in the 1992 election. Bill Clinton won the presidency with 43 percent of the vote after Perot siphoned off 19 percent of the vote as a third-party candidate (without gaining a single electoral vote). Without Perot’s mischief, Bush, who began the year with a 90 percent approval rating would have, we believe, won that election handily.

He was of a generation whose young men rushed to serve the great cause of confronting Fascism and Nazism. He was a high-school senior when, 77-years ago, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He enlisted in the navy the day he graduated and, reportedly, became the youngest combat naval aviator. He was assigned to fly torpedo bombers off of aircraft carriers in the Pacific theater. As Bush biographer and Presidential historian, Jon Meacham tells it, Bush, not quite 19 years old, took off through clear skies to bomb a Japanese communication center over Chichi Jima, an island about 500 miles from the Japanese mainland. His plane was hit and went down, his fellow crewmen killed. Subsequently rescued by a US submarine before Japanese troops could get to him, he was spared certain death. American servicemen captured at Chichi Jima never lived to tell about it.

Following the war and his subsequent graduation from Yale, Bush moved to Texas with Barbara, started a family and began a career in the oil business, which he headed until running successfully for congress in 1966. While generally conservative, Bush supported the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which was not popular in his district. He also supported birth control programs which was not popular within his party, and voted to abolish the draft. He went on to become Ambassador to the United Nations, and later President Gerald Ford appointed Bush to be our unofficial Ambassador to China (technically, he was Chief of U.S. Liaison office in the People’s Republic since we had not yet established full formal diplomatic relations with China). Ford later appointed Bush to be Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, a position he held until the Carter Administration. In 1990 Ronald Reagan beat Bush in the presidential primaries, but subsequently asked him to be his running mate.

George Bush became the first sitting Vice President since Martin Van Buren to win the Presidency, and he won it handily in 1988 taking all but ten states. In fact, no candidate since then has managed to win as much of the popular or electoral vote. The most memorable line (to us) in his inaugural address, especially poignant in this time of discontinuity, was, “the American public did not send us here to bicker.”  How quaint that seems today.

So, President George H.W. Bush went about the job of governing, and govern he did, compromising when necessary and forging new and meaningful initiatives. His was an ambitious domestic agenda.  He oversaw a new civil-rights Act, an overhaul of clean-air rules, new investments in technology, and new spending and taxing rules, all of which laid the foundation for an economic boom that followed his Administration.

He also lost favor with his own party when he reigned over a bi-partisan effort to both raise revenue and cut spending. He had promised no new taxes, but he was determined to bring America’s growing deficits, modest by todays standards of profligate spending, under control. Bush considered the nation’s $400 billion deficit (laughable today) to be unacceptable. So, he forged a bi-partisan agreement to cut the deficit by $500 billion over five years. Republicans were furious, a reaction not lost on fellow Texan Ross Perot.

Bush also distinguished himself by deftly handling major international threats to our national interests. When it was apparent that the Panama Canal was in danger of falling into the hands of strongman Manuel Noriega, whom Bush considered to be a crook and a thug, he used force to remove him from office. Noriega was later tried and convicted of drug trafficking and racketeering.

Following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, Bush skillfully organized and led an international coalition including Arab states, and expelled the Iraqi forces within one hundred hours. He was criticized for not pushing on to Bagdad, but he wanted to minimize US casualties and he believed his coalition partners had joined him to get Hussein out of the Kuwait, not to conquer Iraq.

George H. W. Bush dedicated most of his adult life to the service of our country. He served America well. He will be remembered as the last American President of the generation that saved the world—our greatest generation. He loved America. He, while still in his teens, unflinchingly went to war when America was attacked, and nearly lost his life in combat. He, pretty much, never stopped serving the country he loved. He knew the difference between political opponents and enemies. George H. W. Bush set an example for everyone aspiring to public office. He dignified the oval office. He believed serving that office to be a sacred trust. He brought honor to it.

When he departed, he left this note for his successor.

Dear Bill,

When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.

I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.

There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.

You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.

Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.

Good luck—


Imagine that.

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11 responses to “George H.W. Bush: Among the Best of the Greatest Generation”

  1. Karen K says:

    A particularly good post. He will be missed. Well written and thank you for such a fine tribute to a fine man.

  2. Rachel says:

    Grateful for your tribute. While I have been listening to nonstop coverage since his death, your reflections were the most comprehensive in giving me a sense of his service to this country. I had read before the note he left Clinton and every time I read it will hope we can move back towards country over party

  3. Charles Anderson says:

    A terrific tribute that brings sadness, not just for his loss but for how far away from his graciousness we find ourselves today.

  4. susan duman says:

    The manner in which you organize your narrative and include so cogently what went on in that time period is outstanding. It makes it easy for your readers to recall the historical moments and so much more that are better described when written than spoken on tv.

  5. judy says:

    A wonderful tribute, if only all our politicians would follow his example ……

  6. Peggy Jacobs says:

    If I had commented first, I hope I would have said it as eloquently as Susan Duman has. Her words are my thoughts. Thank you Hal.

  7. Chris Haedt says:

    I’m right there in agreement with Susan, Judy, and Peggy. A wonderful tribute, Hal.

  8. Hal Gershowitz says:

    Correction: We wrote that President Bush was not quite 19 when he took off from an aircraft carrier to attack a Japanese communications facility on Chichi Jima, an island about 500 miles off the coast of Japan. He was, in fact 20 years old. He was “not quite 19”, when he enlisted.

  9. Marc slavin says:

    A class act. And so is his entire family.

  10. Leonard Sherman says:

    Great Partiot, good president but did not win favor withe the American Jewish community and was at war with AIPAC and with held 10 billion dollars of American aid to ISREAL to assist with the massive Russian Jewish Emigration to Israel.

  11. Hal Gershowitz says:

    Bunk! — With all due respect to our very good friend Leonard Sherman.
    While President H. W. Bush did not always walk in lock step with Israel and had his differences with AIPAC over loan guarantees and AWACS for the Saudis, friends do have their differences, but, nonetheless, a friend he was.
    It was the Bush Administration that fought, successfully, to have the UN rescind its odious Zionism is Racism edict. Jews should also never forget that Bush also made the plight of Soviet Jewry one of his signature issues.
    Bush, as vice president, also worked to bring Jews out of Ethiopia, Syria and, of course, the former Soviet Union. Bush working with George Shultz, also helped orchestrate the dramatic seder held in the U.S. embassy in Moscow in 1987, which was an affront to the old Soviet Union, but a strong show of support to Soviet Jews. And even though he had serious policy differences with Israel over the issue of loan guarantees, he was very involved in working with the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia to “rescue” 15,000 Jews through Operation Solomon.
    Interestingly, in a little known intercession, Bush, quietly, persuaded Hafez Assad to allow young Jewish women to leave Syria for New York so they could be matched with men in the Syrian Jewish community.
    It is never a good idea to make perfect the enemy of good.

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