Former President George W. Bush famously remarked that accurate appraisals of one’s political legacy must wait years after a president has left office. His father’s legacy as an American president and patriot isn’t quite so pristine as we’re likely to hear today during his funeral in the National Cathedral. Yet President George H.W. Bush’s policymaking, judgment and sense of decency easily eclipse those of latter-day Republican and Democratic politicians. That’s well worth acknowledging and honoring.
Smart? You bet. In one of the greatest triumphs of his one-term administration, Bush 41 drew from insights and connections gained as an ambassador to the United Nations and CIA director to assemble in 1990 an international military coalition well equipped to confront Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s forces after the latter’s invasion of Kuwait. Those insights contributed mightily to successfully driving Saddam from Kuwait, yet left Saddam in charge to preserve a fragile but vital balance of power against Iran. This also kept coalition forces from getting bogged down in Iraq — a lesson that Bush 43 learned the hard way more than a dozen years later.
Disciplined? Absolutely. When President Bush oversaw the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union — a consequence of not just Ronald Reagan’s administration but several presidents throughout the Cold War — Bush wisely refrained from gloating. No ego-filling statements were issued, no chest-beating gestures were conducted. Bush and his savvy White House team largely left that to others.
Much can be said of Bush’s military service during World War II — and at a time when family connections might have allowed him to slip out of wartime duty. His keen understanding of the dynamics that led to that global conflagration prompted him to dedicate himself to a post-war order that included NATO and the United Nations. Many Americans today dismiss the need for such institutional safeguards. And therein lies our own likely collapse as a democracy.
Consider, too, Bush’s efforts rallying the nation to those better angels that President Lincoln spoke of in his first inaugural address in 1861. Bush’s “thousand points of light” in his 1989 inaugural address encouraged public service and volunteerism from each of us. The speech gave rise to his own Points of Light nonprofit assisting others in volunteerism.
And while Bush’s infamous pledge of “No new taxes” in 1988 contributed to his electoral defeat in 1992 after he had to raise taxes, let’s remember this president was trying to deal honestly with a national debt mushrooming into trillions of dollars, thanks to steep tax cuts and runaway spending under President Reagan’s two-term administration. Bush may not have been so wrong after all back when he branded Reagan’s supply-side economics as “voodoo economics” in the 1980 GOP primaries but Bush, not Reagan, ultimately paid the price for being right. Unfortunately, judging from growing national debt amid tax-cut fervor and runaway spending under contemporary Republican leadership in the White House and Congress, too few learned from Bush’s experience, fiscally or otherwise.