George H.W. Bush: “The Last Unicorn”

A Paean to a Quiet Competent Statesman

The death of President George H.W. Bush at 94 came as no surprise. He departed this life as he held onto it…with a kind of innocent gusto, enjoying every minute without ever trying to draw attention to himself. And yet there were times when his visible presence was reassurance enough. We got a chance catch a glimpse of his dignity and kindness…and remember a time when Statesmanship was a commodity to be prized.

In every political sense of the word, Bush 41 was the Last Unicorn of American Politics—a Republican moderate, a dying breed, alas extinct forever. Reviled more than once for his balanced stances and constant cultivation of consensus to get things done, he eschewed the hyperpartisan cannibalism that became the GOP’s signature in the New Millennium, but managed to do so in quiet expressions of dismay, never calling anyone out or putting anyone down.

His life was a testament to excellence without the fanfare. He understood that public service meant “to serve” and did it without once congratulating himself for his accomplishments or boasting of his achievements. In this era of hypomanic egos and TMZ displays of chest thumping, he had become something of an atavism…and as usual the man and his accomplishments were, at best, damned with faint praise. And yet in the face of this casual disregard, he simply let his resumé speak for itself, and it proclaimed him vocally even though he did not.

The youngest Aviator in the US Navy in WWII, George Herbert Walker Bush was a decorated war hero and crash survivor. A US Congressman from Texas, United Nations Ambassador under Nixon and Special Envoy to China, he was called in by Gerald Ford to clean up the scandal-ridden CIA, and did such a commendable job as its Head that he was asked to stay in that post by incoming President Jimmy Carter, but politely demurred at the offer. Taking on the position as Ronald Reagan’s VP in 1981, he was ranked among the three best Vice Presidents of the last 100 years (along with Truman and Teddy Roosevelt).

As President, Bush was a dedicated Internationalist and Futurist who, through Glasnost, helped the USSR transition into a democratic Russia, got the Berlin Wall torn down, and helped and China (under his friend Deng Xiaoping) take on economic reform and a plunge into exponential Capitalism in the early 1990s. Above all else he understood the politics of consensus and worked with a Democrat held House and Senate to pass some of the most significant legislation in US History, a body of work exceeded only by FDR and LBJ before him.

Overcoming 8 years of pushback against environmental activism by his predecessor, Bush 41 engineered and signed the Clean Air Act and the American with Disabilities Act, two acts that positively impacted the environment and civil rights for all individuals forever. On international relations, his leadership was seminal and landmark. His initiation of NAFTA, though flawed in execution, was quintessentially visionary and an appropriate mirror to the economic bonds being formed in the European Union.

A surprisingly savvy military tactician, he waged perhaps the only justified US War since Korea, leading a coalition of 30 Nations (and the UN) to Drive Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait. A masterstroke of logistics and preparation, Operation Desert Shield turned overnight into Operation Desert Storm, a ground war that lasted 100 hours and uprooted the Iraqi Army virtually overnight with minimum casualties. (Mission Accomplished.) At the time, he was roundly criticized for not going in and taking out Saddam Hussein and the entire Iraqi kleptocracy. But time and political perspective have acquitted that judgment. Two factors at the time contributed to Bush 41’s decision not to go in and finish the job: One was the insistence on the part of the Saudis that it would destabilize the entire Middle East, replacing Saddam Hussein with an even more virulent political element. (They were right.) The second was his calculation in human casualties … estimating more than 20 K to 40 K lives would be lost in the process of intensifying the conflict by bashing their way into Baghdad, including those inside the combined allied forces. Again, he was right. Bush 43 recklessly disregarded the consequences of invasion, resulting in a body count that ended up being ten times that. (And don’t we all wish we could have it all back?)

Usually content to play in the shadow of his predecessor Ronald Reagan, Bush 41 was in truth a far superior administrator and (I believe that history will show) a better President. Managing to payoff a large portion of a record trillion-dollar deficit left from Reagan-era trickle-down economics, he levied income taxes on a conservative base of supporters that had zero tolerance for such progressive pragmatism. It was political cyanide that cost him in the end. And yet it was typical of the man that, given the option, he always opted for nation over party and constructive result over public approval.

Above all his (often) overlooked accomplishments, George H. W. was a humble, decent human being, devoid of rancor who treated everyone with respect, turned personal empathy into a political advantage and never looked upon criticism in the press as some bar fight he had to win.

In fact, it might have well been that lack of pugnacity that served to do him in as far as the American political arena—and its need for “bloodsport”—was concerned. On a personal level he was simply too patrician for the crass, brassy persona required to capture the public imagination. He seldom fared well when he ran for office. He wasn’t a gifted orator. And he was loyal often to a fault—sometimes to the wrong people.

His selection of Dan Quayle as his running mate in 1988 was looked upon as lacking sound judgment, especially in choosing a Number 2 whose IQ was only about five points higher than his “scratch” round for 18 holes. His nomination of conservative black jurist Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, caused enough of an uproar on its own, compounded by the Anita Hill fiasco and the fact that George H.W. stuck by his nominee, refusing even once to flinch or reconsider. His other judicial appointment, David Souter, who became a moderate-liberal on the bench seemed to seal Bush’s fate with his conservative base in 1992, as did the bizarre national perception that he had done “nothing to help victims of AIDS”—as if waving some executive magic wand could fix years of faulty research that rushed AZT to market (the real killer of gays at the time).

A stock-market hiccup in ’91 and his clipped rhetoric in view of a restive voter base, made Bush seem oddly like an old man out of touch with his new dynamic, youth-driven nation—a terrible misconception that stuck just long enough to get him voted out in 1992.

In an appropriate bit of irony, George H. W. Bush got taken down in the end—not by William Jefferson Clinton—but by a renegade campaign by fellow Texan, billionaire maverick Ross Perot, one that cost the GOP 22 million votes and several key states. More than that, Perot had unwittingly provided Bill Clinton with just the leverage he needed to finish the day. Since Clinton, the consummate political chameleon, had little new on his own to add to the ideological landscape, he attached himself like a lamprey to Perot’s populism and shadowed his platform to the point of plagiarism—all a phenomenon for which Bush had neither a rhetorical nor tactical riposte.

All these things combined to make the elder Bush come off as a political dinosaur no longer able to govern a nation that was standing on shifting sands. And in that regard he seemed almost a willing accomplice to his own departure in ’92.

Honored as an elder statesman, he departed this Earth as he occupied it, with quiet dignity and with class, honor and a legacy of phenomenal accomplishment that very few of us ever came to grasp. It was, above all else, a life well lived. And we were all its beneficiaries. In that regard, George Herbert Walker Bush was very much like the kindly old uncle we always took for granted who just managed to leave us a fortune in his will—a notion of goodness and generosity lost to us in the relentless pursuit of change.

(1924-2018.)

 

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