The Vision of George H.W. Bush

It is often said that a man's character is his fate. But the presidency magnifies character far beyond the man himself. For four years, George Bush's character was America's fate. This good man was our good fortune.
12/29/2015 07:09 am ET Updated Dec 23, 2016
Former President George H.W. Bush waves as he arrives at the White House, Friday, May 19, 2006 in Washington. Former Presiden
Former President George H.W. Bush waves as he arrives at the White House, Friday, May 19, 2006 in Washington. Former President Bush will be speaking at the commencement exercise at George Washington University on Sunday. Man on the left is unidentified Secret Service agent. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

George H.W. Bush once famously groused about "the vision thing" -- the expectation that a leader should package his policies in a few stirring phrases. A fair plaint from a man who dealt with complexity and crisis while suffering such notable visionaries as the two Pats -- Robertson and Buchanan -- whose clarion calls helped infuse the GOP with nativism and fundamentalism. George Bush's vision of leadership was of a different order.

"The longer I'm in this job," he wrote in his diary, "the more I think that prudence is a value, and I hope experience matters." At another time, he told staffers, "I want to do the most good I can, and the least harm." It is well to consider whether this vision of leadership, however modest it may sound, is more essential in a president than vaulting language or lofty goals -- and far more difficult to achieve.

At the very least, it suggests how much the essence of a man -- who he is rather than what he says -- determines whether he can meet the challenges of his times. And never is this more true than in confronting crises in which rigid ideology is of little use, and where resolve and judgment matter most.

Essential to George Bush's leadership was to think carefully and see ahead, to reach out, listen and persuade, to find good people among those who opposed him and, if he could, to bring the body politic to a conclusion which, in his judgment, served the greater good. This is a complicated process, not easily accessible to the simplistic and self-involved.

George Bush is a man of great pride and ambition, who likes to win as much as he hates losing. But as president, he had a sense of perspective about himself and his actions which enabled him to move forward where less tempered men would be defeated by circumstance or defeat themselves.

He earned Mikael Gorbachev's trust, in part by seeking no credit for his deft statesmanship in helping to facilitate the dissolution of the Soviet Empire without a violent counter reaction or undue bloodshed. The grating, prating Margaret Thatcher preened herself in his modestly cast shadow, and the world was better for the quiet leadership which allowed this. Because George Bush never lost his sense of proportion, he was bigger than those leaders who thought themselves big.

He learned this early from his father Prescott and, especially, his redoubtable mother Dorothy, East Coast patricians who resisted smugness or pretense. From his mother he learned never to dwell on the "Great I Am," but to see himself as part of a larger whole -- family, team, school, community, country and, eventually, the world. He learned that those he met should be understood for who they were and treated with the courtesy and interest he would want for himself. Unlike Ronald Reagan, for whom people were an abstraction, part of an interchangeable audience, for George Bush those he looked in the eye were flesh and blood humans with their own distinctive value and concerns.

He was, a longtime aide and confidant says, "a master of the small gesture" expressed in countless handwritten notes and thank you's, a multitude of kindnesses toward the eminent and the modest -- a spontaneous visit as president to the woman who ran the House Dining Room because "she was always great to me"; a visit to a dying congressman he knew but casually; a warm and funny letter to a reporter when he learned she was afflicted by cancer, despite the fact that she had always excoriated him.

If no man is a hero to his valet, this goes double for the Secret Service, who see a president and his family in the unsparing light of omnipresence.In the case of George Bush, that light illuminated who he was An agent who covered seven presidents says that George and Barbara Bush "had no off switch," no "public versus private face" which concealed pettiness, meanness or self-absorption. The George Bush he came to know well was "a real gentleman in the best sense of that phrase": loyal, thoughtful, a man of his word, who appreciated the agents and cared about their families and who, even in the most trying circumstances, never complained or made things harder. "Of all the guys I've met here," another agent says, "he's the best."

He is ever curious, venturesome, adaptable. He went to war as a volunteer at age 19, and nearly lost his life. He left behind the familiar avenue of Wall Street, his father's world, to take on oil exploration in Texas, eagerly absorbing a new business and new culture -- liking pork rinds and country music was not an affectation, but an enthusiasm.

Throwing himself into Texas politics, he lost as often as he won, but kept finding new challenges to master as he rose in national life. During the Ford administration, Bush drew the envy of the sharp elbowed Donald Rumsfeld. Ambitious for higher office,and worried that Gerald Ford might choose Bush as vice president, Rumsfeld engineered his exile as envoy to China.

As is his nature, Bush threw himself into this unwanted assignment -- he triumphed in the role, and went on to become president. Rumsfeld never did. Sometimes character is its own recompense: it is, perhaps, just that Rumsfeld knows how history will judge him relative to the 41st president of the United States.

Running for president is a poor predicate for canonization, and casts its own complex light on the people who do so. Presidential aspirants are not noted for their indifference to the outcome, and George HW Bush was no exception. He could play tough, and those charged with securing his victory played even rougher -- notably in 1988, leading to an expression of deathbed remorse by Lee Atwater, no sentimentalist, to Michael Dukakis. But politics, truly, ain't beanbag -- as demonstrated by Al Gore who, looking to derail Dukakis in the Democratic primaries, first cited the furlough program for Massachusetts prison inmates supported and preserved by Governor Dukakis.

That led directly to the visceral Willie Horton ad with which a separate pro -- Bush group savaged Dukakis, arguably a critical element in his defeat, as well as extensive use of the furlough issue by the Bush campaign. But the program itself was more than careless -- it led to the rape and murder of innocents by violent felons inexplicably set loose for a weekend. That tragedy was on Michael Dukakis, no one else.

Nor need any appraisal of the Bush presidency skip over that, as is true for any president, there are plenty of Americans who sincerely decried his policies and deplored his appointments - including Clarence Thomas, who is with us still. Fair enough. The inevitable consequence of our electoral process is that many millions view the outcome, as they should, with deep seriousness and, among the disappointed, with misgivings or worse about our present and our future. But that does not diminish that the president we end up with faces a multitude of challenges and choices which turn on his essential nature -- a truth driven home by the cardinal events of the Bush presidency.

Abroad, Bush faced swiftly moving and complex events and here, as elsewhere, his essence mattered. He built relationships with foreign leaders,earning their friendship and respect. He could call a head of state in Africa as easily as a Texas politician could call a sheriff in the next county. He listened carefully, spoke thoughtfully, cast a discerning eye on his counterparts' exigencies and needs. Equally, he drew affection from the citizens he met, who appreciated his interest and eagerness to know them. When he was traveling overseas, for security purposes the Secret Service would use use one or two additional limousines identical to that which held the president.

Bush instructed the agents in the dummy cars to wave at the crowds which gathered -- after all, he explained, they had waited a long time to see him, and if they thought he was waving back they would have something to remember. As ever, he was a master of the small gesture -- as well as others with epochal importance.

Those events are well-limned in John Meacham's current biography. By winning Gorbachev's trust, George Bush negotiated a reduction in forces between NATO and the Soviet bloc. He carefully managed the West's reaction to the loosening of Soviet dominance, forgoing grandstanding in favor of facilitating the liberation of the satellite countries in Eastern Europe. After the Berlin Wall fell, he refused to fly there to make a triumphal speech, rightly believing that "sticking it in Gorbachev's eye" was a terrible idea.

Breaking through old national paradigms and conventional thinking, he persuaded the ancient enemies of Germany -- France and Great Britain -- that German reunification would, as indeed it has, result in a strong democratic ally of the West. His equally careful diplomacy with Gorbachev sealed this dramatic change. Far from inevitable, the peaceful transition of an entire region from oppression to freedom owes much to George Bush's initiative and vision.

His response to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait was equally measured. One component was firmness -- telling Iraq and the world "this will not stand", he rallied Arab states who were fearful of Saddam and uncertain of American resolve. In the end, 35 countries contributed militarily to the Bush-led coalition while, remarkably, the Soviet Union and China lent diplomatic support. Some critics thought that he was doing too much ; others too little, including with respect to Saddam's cruel post -- war suppression of the Kurds.

But Bush accomplished exactly what he said he would; expel Iraq from Kuwait, relieving a threat to regional stability, and restoring the balance of power with a newly contained Saddam. Equally important was what he chose to forgo -- an invasion which would have shattered the coalition, exceeded the UN mandate he had so assiduously won, and potentially turned Saddam into a martyr. Once more, his homely resolve to "do the most good... and the least harm" brought both stability and change to a crucial area of the world.

In domestic policy, he was subject to the dogmatism -- from both the left and right -- which now threatens to cripple governance altogether. His was a measured conservatism -- conservative, no doubt, but not as a blinkered opponent of government action where he felt it would serve the greater good: clean water and clean-air legislation, raising the minimum wage, banning the importation of most semi-automatic weapons. He spoke without irony of "sound governance" to keep the country on a stable course -- a far cry from the partisan bile which poisons today's political discourse and reduces governance to spasms of fits and starts.

And just as he was willing to play tough to win the presidency, he willingly risked his reelection to serve the national interest. In 1988, he had rallied the Republican base with his pledge "read my lips -- no new taxes." But by 1990 he saw the burgeoning deficit as a looming threat to the economy, potentially saddling future generations with unsustainable levels of debt.

He further knew that the absence of a budget deal might lead to a government shutdown and, as well, draconian spending cuts which would cripple the government's ability to function. To prevent this, he forged a balanced deal with the Democratic majority in Congress which, of necessity, included a new taxes -- enraging the Republican right.

"I've got to do what's right", he told an aide, predicting that he was "signing my political death warrant." He was prophetic. But he helped pave the way for the prosperity enjoyed by his successor, his future friend Bill Clinton.

While he maintained a lively interest in politics and policy, here and abroad, the years of George Bush's post-presidency have been marked by family and friends and, until quite recently, much activity and travel, often in the service of his country.Early in those years a note of appreciation about a novel he had read -- a not so small gesture to its very surprised author, who had never met him -- led to advice on another novel concerning presidential politics,then an invitation to speak on behalf of Barbara Bush's expansive literacy program and ,soon enough, inclusion in their capacious circle of friends.

The atmosphere of Walker's Point was spirited and lively -- the Bush family shares a sharp sense of humor, a deep mutual loyalty,a cheerful competitive ferocity, and an abiding affection often expressed through good-natured ribbing, not least between the president and Mrs. Bush. Their profound devotion to each other makes plain the favor Dorothy Bush did her son by acclimating him to strong women : smart, funny, honest and caring, Barbara Bush is the familial glue for four ever-expanding generations -- not to mention formidable at verbal thrust and parry .

Friends were not immune. Guests at the dinner table were well advised to show up with their wits about them, at least if the Bushes judged you as sufficient to the challenge. Self-seriousness was no help at all. The consolation was to know that the more fondness the family felt for you, the less mercy.

Nor was there any mercy in competition. Though the president was a gracious loser, he far preferred not to overdraw on those particular reserves of graciousness -- whether at golf or tennis or, especially, horseshoes, an activity governed by a mysterious "Committee" to which only the president seemed to have access.

A special enthusiasm was speeding in a cigarette boat with a swiftness and acceleration which left the Secret Service behind. In an effort to keep up with him, the service commandeered some cigarette boats seized from Florida drug smugglers. When the president realized that one such craft was swifter than his own, another transfer of ownership occurred. Tourists watching him from the shore were treated, had they but known it, to the sight of President Bush outrunning the Secret Service in a boat whose former proprietor had been a fast -- moving Miami-based entrepreneur.

With all this came an appreciation of diverse people and a good-natured tolerance of difference. Though politics was never the point of our friendship, it did not elude the President and Mrs. Bush, keen readers of my novels, that I was situated to their political left. More than once, after some book of mine ventured into tendentious territory regarding, say, guns or abortion, Barbara, ever candid, would allow that this particular epic might not be her very favorite.

Nonetheless, I kept inflicting new books on them -- at least, I rationalized, they were free. After one such unsolicited gift, I promptly received a thank you note from the president. "Hell with guns, transvestites and abortion," he assured me. "You are our friend, and always will be."

But another memory is more serious and, perhaps, more revealing about George Bush. One summer my then -- wife and I were houseguests at Walker's Point. After dinner at Mabel's Lobster Shack, a favorite in Kennebunkport, the four of us walked the mile or two back to the house in the dusk of a warm summer evening. There were Secret Service agents in front and behind us, far enough to give us privacy, and the usual stream of sightseers in cars passed us on the road, Laurie and the president chatting, Barbara and I trailing behind.

Abruptly, a lone man leapt out of a car ahead, cutting behind the Secret Service agent and running towards us. In that instant, no one knew what this sudden sprint portended, or what danger it might pose; in that same instant, President Bush stepped in front of Laurie, walking toward the man to greet him. Whatever this was, his actions said, it was happening because of him and, he would make sure, would happen to no one else.

The man was an overexcited Italian who wanted George Bush's autograph. Amiably, the president gave it to him; the moment passed. His actions, however remarkable, went unremarked among the four of us. That is his nature.

It is often said that a man's character is his fate. But the presidency magnifies character far beyond the man himself. For four years, George Bush's character was America's fate. This good man was our good fortune.