It’s fitting that former President George H.W. Bush, whose diplomacy helped end the short Gulf War and the long Cold War, is being remembered in death for words he uttered in his 1988 nomination speech: “Kinder,” “gentler,” “1,000 points of light.” Bush’s graciousness and kindness were on display his entire 94-year life. He himself was a point of light.
He was a former World War II hero, a Texas oil entrepreneur, a congressman, a U.N. ambassador, a CIA director, a two-term vice president, a one-term president and an aging, elder statesman. His kindness was on display beginning with his youth in Connecticut, where he was nicknamed “Have-Half” for constantly offering to share what he had with others. In his late 80s, Bush shaved his head to show solidarity with the 2-year-old son of one of his Secret Service agents who was battling leukemia.
On the job, Bush used this grace at times to extraordinary effect. After the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, he oversaw the end of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race with great skill, repeatedly reassuring the Soviet Union’s last president, Mikhail Gorbachev, that Washington would help his nation transition into a new era — that Moscow would not be humiliated for Gorbachev’s courage in admitting that communism was a failure.
Bush used his diplomatic skills to create a global coalition of 39 nations — with 28 contributing troops — to attack Iraq in 1991 after it had crushed and occupied the neighboring oil-rich nation of Kuwait in a brief war. After Iraq was routed, he refused to march on Baghdad and take over the weakened nation — honoring the promises made to allies that the sole U.S. goal was upholding international law by restoring the legitimate Kuwait government.
On the domestic front, Bush built bipartisan coalitions to enact the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark 1990 law that committed the nation to help and protect the physically and mentally challenged. And his 1990 decision to accept new taxes as part of a package imposing restrictions on spending paved the way for more than a decade of responsible budgets — including years of surpluses — that should shame America’s present leaders.
That decision, however, broke Bush’s 1988 campaign pledge of “no new taxes” and, along with his awkward campaigning, the fallout from a recession and the appeal of both Democrat Bill Clinton and independent Ross Perot, led to his loss in 1992.
History has been kinder to the 41st president than voters were. Yes, he had flaws. His infamous 1988 campaign ad — Google “Willie Horton” if you must — was racial demagoguery. And his role in the Iran-Contra scandal will always be suspicious. But his lifetime of good outweighs his mistakes.
In an era of cutthroat partisanship, it was inspirational to see Bush’s eager willingness in 2005 to partner with the Democrat who beat him — Bill Clinton — on humanitarian relief campaigns after the devastating Southeast Asia tsunami and the heartbreaking destruction of Hurricane Katrina.
“41 got what he wanted without bullying, coercion or threats,” former aide Larry Thomas wrote in The San Diego Union-Tribune. “He consulted broadly when facing major decisions, and just as broadly shared credit when the outcome was favorable.”
“Have-Half” never stopped sharing — or serving. America could use a president like him today.
— The San Diego Union-Tribune