The beatification of George H.W. Bush, which even the current president signaled was OK, would have surprised the 41st president, who seemed to have accepted the public’s verdict that, although a waffler, he was a decent man who did his best and didn’t do any harm to the people of the country or the world with whose well-being he was entrusted for a time.
That Bush I was generous and forgiving with opponents and critics is reason enough today to sanctify him, one of only 33 people who have lain in state in the U.S. Capitol, and to immortalize the small and decent things he did and said, like the warm letter left on the desk of the man who beat him in 1992 and the 25 years of secret, funny correspondence with a snarky female reporter and later columnist for The New York Times who had devoted so many thousands of words to ridiculing him and his spawn.
It’s reason enough because it’s so unlike someone else we all know and who shall not be named because it would be un-Bushlike.
Although in extremes it can be a problem, humility — George H.W. Bush’s greatest virtue — needs to be honored on occasion. Every worthy leader need not be Caesar.
Bush knew he was human and he always wondered — doubted — whether he was on the right course, whether he had examined all factors, whether he had gotten enough counsel, although if it came from James Baker, his savvy Texas confidante, he was pretty sure it was right. It was Baker who went out in 1980 and announced that Bush was no longer running for president when Bush thought he still was. Baker preserved Bush’s chance to be Reagan’s vice president.
By the time he ran for president, Bush had been immersed in business and world affairs so long that he had a good head for both real wisdom and nonsense. Reagan had promoted his supply-side economics theory — big tax cuts, mainly for the wealthy — with the claim that they would produce fabulous growth, a fat treasury and an end to deficits. Bush called it voodoo economics. As a member of the Reagan team he went along with the charade, even after he was proved right. The country fell into the deepest recession in modern times and the debt mushroomed. Reagan and then Bush spent the next 11 years raising taxes to get debt under control. Bill Clinton got all the credit when he also raised taxes a little and the country experienced long prosperity and the only budget surpluses in modern times.
Reagan promised that taxes would be raised “over my dead body” and then raised them and remained popular. Bush said, “Read my lips: no new taxes,” and then raised them a little and people called him a liar.
Some want to remember the nastiness of his campaigns — the Willie Horton ads against Michael Dukakis that were, at that time, the low-water mark of campaigning, or the earlier attacks on fellow Republican Bob Dole, who demanded that his fellow war vet quit lying about Dole’s record. All of that, see, was Lee Atwater’s doing and Bush just went along. Remember that Bush insisted on passing the Americans With Disabilities Act in spite of the new Republican mantra that doing things for the weak and unfortunate instead of the strong and the provident violated the American way.
Bush I will always be defined by Operation Desert Storm, the first gulf war, which sent his popularity soaring, if only briefly, as wars always do. It was the essential George Bush — careful, hesitant, thoughtful, malleable, troubled, defiant — but Bush at his best. The big decision — the one that counted — he got right. After liberating Kuwait from Saddam Hussein, he declared peace rather than overthrow the crushed ruler and take control of Iraq, as his son would do. History quickly reckoned that Bush I was right and II terribly wrong. Not in most of our lifetimes will we see the end of the chaos and suffering.
It will be remembered that George H.W. Bush handled most of the Middle East diplomacy through the chaotic ’80s, except (presumably) when Reagan’s national security team, in violation of the Logan Act, collaborated secretly with Iran and Israel to trade arms for hostages, who were to be held until after the U.S. presidential election.
Reagan-Bush sided with Saddam after he invaded Iran but then cooled on him after Saudi Arabia, our chief oil supplier, worried that Iraq might steal the gulf oil market, first from Kuwait and then the Saudis. When Saddam, his economy foundering in debt and with the emir sucking oil from his fields, moved against Kuwait to recover the heritage from the collapse of the Ottoman empire, Bush went to war and put troops and arms permanently on holy Arabian soil, triggering the great terrorist attacks on America in 1993 and 2001 — the one sad legacy Bush could not escape.
He rallied allies from Europe, the Americas and around the Persian Gulf but still had to be stiffened by Margaret Thatcher when he quailed and wondered if he shouldn’t let Iraq have Kuwait for a while. Thatcher snapped: Don’t go wobbly on us, George.
He stiffened, stayed the course and then settled for peace rather than conquest. A token measure of wisdom and humility would still serve us well.