George Herbert Walker Bush, America’s 41st President – and a model of American decency, honor, courage, service, faith and humility – has died at age 94. This wonderful man, in whose White House I once worked, was always more than met the eye. We are lucky to have known him – all of us, we Americans who lived in his time.
His humility was extraordinary and his life accomplishments stand unrivaled. As a husband, father of six, America’s youngest combat fighter pilot in WWII, Congressman, leader of the Republican Party, Director of the CIA, Ambassador to the UN, envoy to China, two-term vice president under Ronald Reagan, and then as President – are breathtaking. His life after the presidency was no less instructive. And on this day, his example shines.
Personal stories tell more than riveting facts, but facts surrounding George Herbert Walker Bush’s life – are simply extraordinary.
With the nickname “Poppy,” he graduated high school six months after Pearl Harbor, and immediately enlisted in the US Navy, becoming America’s youngest naval aviator at 18. He flew missions off the USS San Jacinto, contributing to victory at the Battle of the Philippine Sea. When his TBM Avenger was shot and caught fire, he nevertheless delivered his payload from the burning plane, nursing it to sea before bailing. Four hours later, he was plucked from the sea by an American submarine, the USS Finback. By war’s end, in 1945, his medals were many – including the Distinguished Flying Cross.
By coincidence, an old veteran who grew up in my town in Maine, also served on the USS San Jacinto with Bush. His recollections were all good, and the one that sticks is that Bush was up and flying an Avenger off the deck within 30 days of being shot down. No hesitation.
If honor, courage, service and faith were demonstrated and deepened in wartime service, these elements of Bush’s character only grew as his legacy of service grew. Marrying Barbara in the Navy, the couple had six children, four boys and two girls. In an early and devastating blow, they lost one of their daughters to leukemia, age five. Their faith stayed strong.
In time, as the historical record reveals, this couple’s impact on America kept radiating outward. After the Navy, the future President attended Yale, started a business in Texas, won a seat in Congress in 1966 (after failing to win one in the Senate), then gradually laid what would become important foundation stones for the future. His was a conservative record, over two House terms, showed special sensitivity to national security and free markets, as well as to civil rights and fiscal discipline.
As if riding a rocket into space, at about the time America’s first astronauts were reaching the moon, Bush became an Ambassador to the United Nations in 1971, after failing to win a Senate seat for the second time. Undeterred, he would progress from the UN to Chairman of the Republican Party – where he watched the party shudder, and help it recover from Watergate.
His poignant quote is: “There was an aura of sadness” surrounding Nixon’s fall, yet also “a new spirit, new lift” in President Gerald Ford’s thoughtful, healing words. So, he watched the nation he loved struggle and hope for recovery, just as he once had in the seas around Japan. Never, however, did he lose sight of the horizon. He kept his eyes on it.
As President, he notched major victories, including managing the collapse of the Soviet Union, and reintegration of Russia into the world, utter end of the Iron Curtain; strong education-related initiatives, and recurring focus on fiscal balance. His list of accomplishments – notably facing a Democratic Congress – is surprisingly long. Much of that goes to his personality, and willingness to respect, think through with, and ultimately compromise with those with whom he disagreed.
Unprecedented, too, was the role that he and former First Lady Barbara Bush played as parents of a president, his son George W. Bush, who had also been a Texas Governor, and parents of Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Beyond that, they were doting grandparents to 17 grandchildren.
So, on this day – of sadness and reflection – when we pause to remember a shining example, think with me about the goodness of it all. Here was a courageous heart, and a deep soul, who loyally served us all, from risks taken in youth to old age. He unwaveringly modeled collegiality, decency and friendship with old rivals, while maintaining a certain ineffable quality that merged high achievement with enduring humility, genuine modesty.
Short story as footnote: One late night in his White House, I visited Bush’s chief speechwriter – as a newly on-boarded young staffer. For a speech to be given at a military academy, I had added lines into it tied to the President’s own military service. They were now gone. I wondered why?
The speechwriter said something along these lines: Welcome to the club. We used to put those lines in about his combat experience, combat flying and WWII service … but after the third or fourth time that the President draws a red line through them, we don’t put them in any more. The President thinks people know, and if they do not, it is not his place to tell them. That, is humility.
If you get time, President Bush’s eulogy given for President Reagan on the latter’s death, is among the most touching on public record. It will slow, lift you, and strengthen you. It does me, when I reread it.
President Bush closes this way: “Where does that strength come from? Where is that courage learned? It is the faith of a boy who read the Bible with his mom. It is the faith of a man lying in an operating room who prayed for the one who shot him before he prayed for himself. It is the faith of a man with a fearful illness, who waited on the Lord to call him home … And now death has done all that death can do. And as Ronald Reagan goes his way, we are left with the joyful hope he shared. In his last years, he saw through a glass darkly. Now he sees his Savior face to face. And we look to that fine day when we will see him again, all weariness gone, clear of mind, strong and sure, and smiling again, and the sorrow of his parting gone forever. May God bless Ronald Reagan, and the country he loved.”
Friends, we can say again, thank God for such examples in our lives – and the life of this great country. George Herbert Walker Bush was one of a kind. Today may he see his friend Ron, his wife Barbara, and his long missed daughter Robin, in all the glory of the life beyond. We are lucky to have known him – lucky still to have his legacy for guidance, lucky to have been Americans in George HW Bush’s America.