George H.W. Bush, who died this morning, became president of the United States about six months before I became the president of Trinity, and his term of office coincided with my earliest years in this position. Needless to say, in those days before the internet, before email and Twitter and Facebook and all the rest — in the days when most news came on broadsheets or broadcast through 3 networks or radio — in those medieval days I confess I did not follow the Bush presidency with anywhere near the close attention to the frenetic daily drama of the current White House occupant. But that statement also says a lot about how the man George H.W. Bush was different, how the Office of President was different, and how our society was different than in the present age.
“Bush 41,” the first President Bush (his son George W. Bush became the 43rd president in 2001, and that’s another whole story!), was a genteel self-effacing man who exemplified the idea and ideal of the competent, confident Organization Man who emerged in so many roles after World War II. Educated at elite schools and imbued with the customs and language of the “old boys’ networks” of prep schools and Yale, he had the sense of duty to his country and ideal of honorable public service that led him to enlist as a fighter pilot, survive getting shot down, and, after building a successful oil business in Texas, spend the better part of his life in public service in elected and appointed positions. For the Bush family, in ways not dissimilar to the Roosevelts, Kennedys and other legendary political families, the idea of public leadership was almost an entitlement, the result of years of preparation for the young men of wealthy and influential families. So it was that George H. W. Bush, a military hero, was a member of Congress, an ambassador to the United Nations, a presidential emissary to China, a CIA director, a vice president with President Ronald Reagan, and, ultimately, president of the U.S.
Bush’s legacy is complicated. Hailed for achievements on the global stage, he lost the election for a second term largely because of an economic slump and reneging on his pledge that there would be “no new taxes,” giving rise to the insurgency of H. Ross Perot who wound up taking 19% of the popular vote, most of which would have gone to Bush. He teamed with Senator Robert Dole to ensure the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but on other civil rights issues his record was regressive at best; in his early political career, he opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and nothing in his later career demonstrated any real progress in his philosophy about race and racism. His nomination of Clarence Thomas to succeed Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court was a shockingly obtuse and regressive statement about his understanding of civil rights history. His approval of the “Willie Horton” ad in his 1988 campaign against Michael Dukakis was a shameful exploitation of racism to garner white votes. He was progressive on climate change but regressive on women’s rights and advancement in high profile positions.
Three extraordinary moments from the Bush presidency stand out in my memory.
The end of the Cold War, the end of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany — all symbolized in the physical destruction of the Berlin Wall — were world-changing events during the Bush presidency. Bush was not the entire cause of any of these events, but he surely had worked for years with all those who were seeking the end of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and the liberation of peoples who had suffered so much oppression. His skill as a diplomat was evident in his relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the old Soviet Union. Bush’s global leadership in that period of remarkable realignment of the great powers was essential to ensuring peace and ultimate success for the new world order. I recall being mezmerized by each day’s news of new breakthroughs in a part of the world that many of us had grown up fearing.
The appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court was one of President Bush’s most ill-advised acts. Then, as now, the appointment power carried great political weight, and the choice of Thomas, a profoundly conservative African American jurist, was a slap in the face to the great civil rights legacy of the justice he replaced, Thurgood Marshall. But the enduring legacy of the Thomas nomination was the spectacle of the Senate Judiciary Hearings, chaired by Senator Joseph Biden, inquiring into the sexual harassment allegations of Anita Hill. The treatment of Professor Hill was shameful all the way around. The televised hearings were a riveting drama, and, just like the recent Kavanaugh hearings, a bitter reminder that women who accuse powerful men of misconduct pay a heavy price.
But the most stunning moment I recall from those days was the night the news broke that the United States had launched a war against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to stop his incursion into Kuwait. The First Gulf War — Operation Desert Storm — broke out in mid-January 1991, and it was the first time since the end of the Vietnam War that students at Trinity had to cope with the idea of the nation at war. I remember students coming into my office that night very upset, some had brothers or relatives in the military, and all wondered what launching a war would mean for their lives. We had a forum for faculty and students in Social Hall, and students organized marches and other activities — though pointedly letting me know that they were “not hippies like you guys were during Vietnam.” Hmm. The style of student protests may have changed with the years, but the fear of war and desire for peace was the same.
Fortunately, the Gulf War lasted only about a month, and U.S. casualties were few. But the bitter legacy of that brief conflict turned out to be a far longer and more treacherous war later on, triggered by the terrorist tragedy of September 11, 2001, but bolstered by the ongoing hostility that the second Bush president — George W. Bush, the 43rd president — felt toward Saddam Hussein. The Second Gulf War — the War in Iraq — went on for eight years, cost hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives and thousands of Americans were killed or wounded, and the economic cost was enormous. Saddam Hussein was ultimately captured and executed, but the emergence of rogue agents and terrorists changed the nature of war forever.
President George H.W. Bush was the last of the “Greatest Generation” presidents, a U.S. leader who understood the importance of our nation’s global leadership and full engagement with world challenges. His skillful diplomacy, generosity of spirit, self-effacing manner and general good manners remind us of what presidents should be. We can wish that he would have put his considerable charm to work as ardently on a progressive domestic agenda as he did on the international stage. But as many commentators have noted, Bush demonstrated one of the most important traits of a good leader — the ability to work “across the aisle,” to set aside partisanship for greater goals, to eschew personally protective calculations in favor of actions to improve the common good. We are missing that very much right now.
Agree or disagree with aspects of his politics, the nation mourns today, not only the loss of the man, but the loss of the idea of the leader as someone possessed of a certain grace and style, a class act to call out the better angels among all citizens. We could use a lot more class and a lot less of the “act” in the presidency today. Let’s pay tribute to this leader by insisting that we must restore the idea of real leadership to the Office of the President of the United States.