His guests were just about everything George H.W. Bush had never been, and never could be: ideological, hard-edged and spoiling for a partisan revolution. It was spring 1989, and Newt Gingrich, a young congressman from Georgia, had been elected the House Republican whip, a key leadership post in the Washington of the 41st president. Bush, who was more comfortable in the fading moderate precincts of the Republican Party, didn’t know Gingrich well, but the perennially hospitable president invited him and Vin Weber, the Minnesota Republican congressman who had managed Gingrich’s whip campaign, down to the White House for a beer. The conversation was pleasant, but the visitors felt there was something Bush was not quite saying. Weber decided to put the question to the president directly.
“Mr. President, you’ve been very nice to us,” Weber said as they were preparing to leave. “Tell us what your biggest fear is about us.”
“Well,” Bush answered, “I’m worried that sometimes your idealism will get in the way of what I think is sound governance.” In the most polite way possible, in a single sentence, Bush had summarized his anxiety that when politics and principle clashed, politics was going to win.
Weber recalled that he appreciated the president’s use of the word “idealism” — he hadn’t said “extremism” or “partisanship,” though that was what he meant. The two congressmen represented a harsh new kind of politics that would, in five years’ time, lead to the first Republican takeover of the House in four decades. By then George Bush would be back in Texas, a one-term president done in by the right wing of his own party — a conservative cabal that rebelled against Bush’s statesmanlike deal with Democrats to raise some taxes in exchange for spending controls to rein in the deficit.
George Herbert Walker Bush, who died Friday night at 94, was the last president of the Greatest Generation, a gentleman who came of age in an ever-uglier arena, the embodiment of a postwar era of consensus that, in our time, seems as remote as Agincourt. He deserves our praise, but he also repays closer historical consideration, for his life offers an object lesson in the best that politics, which is inherently imperfect, can be.
He’d grown up in a world where politics was a means to serve the public good, not a vehicle for self-aggrandizement or self-enrichment. His father, Sen. Prescott Bush of Connecticut, spoke out against Joseph McCarthy earlier than most. And George Bush — known then as “Poppy,” a childhood nickname — signed up to serve as soon as he could, and never stopped.
As an 18-year-old, he volunteered for hazardous duty as a carrier-based naval aviator in World War II. As commander in chief, nearly half a century later, he, with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and building on the work of presidents of both parties down the decades, ended the deadliest standoff in human history, the Cold War. Before he got to the White House, a nuclear Armageddon between America and the Soviet Union was always a possibility; after him, it was unthinkable.
On the home front, his 1990 budget agreement codified controls on spending and created the conditions for the elimination of the federal budget deficit under his successor, Bill Clinton. He negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed the Americans With Disabilities Act and passed historic clean-air legislation. It’s virtually impossible to imagine a Republican president doing so much today.
It’s an inescapable fact of history, though, that as Bush struggled to govern like Ike, the world around him was beginning to resemble a Joe McCarthy rally. In the Bush years, conservative Republicans girded for total war, talk radio was on the rise, cable news shows were busy turning politics into a kind of professional wrestling for wonks, and populists such as Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan — forerunners, in their way, of Donald Trump — were waiting for their chance to pounce. (Bush did think an overture from Lee Atwater, his campaign manager, to consider Trump for the 1988 vice-presidential nomination the most puzzling of notions. “Strange,” Bush told his diary. “Unbelievable.”)
Bush was a gentleman, but he was a politician, too, and therein lay the great tension of his life. “Politics isn’t a pure undertaking — not if you’re going to win, it’s not,” he once told me. “That’s the way politics is, unfortunately.”
Truth be told — and he always wanted history to tell the truth — it is also the case that Bush was an occasionally hard-knuckled politician. He presided over a presidential campaign that relentlessly attacked Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’ liberal social views, ranging from furloughs for first-degree murderers to Dukakis’ veto of a bill requiring public-school teachers to lead the Pledge of Allegiance.
To win office Bush had to choose between two sets of deeply ingrained impulses; the Competitor had to be given provisional dominion over the Conciliator. As he privately observed when his mind turned to his own 1988 White House run: “If you want to be president — and I do — there are certain things that I have to do.”
To serve he had to succeed; to preside he had to prevail. For Bush the impulses to do in his opponents and to do good were inextricably bound. At the end of the 1988 campaign he mused to himself, “The country gets over these things fast. I have no apologies, no regrets, and if I had let the press keep defining me as a wimp, a loser, I wouldn’t be where I am today: threatening, close, and who knows, maybe winning.” He was at once ferocious and gracious — a formidable combination.
Bush never doubted that he was the best man on the ballot. Armed with this self-confidence — a personal assurance masked by his kindness and his thoughtfulness — he could justify adapting his principles and attacking his opponents as the inevitable price of politics. To Bush, such calculations were not cynical. They were instrumental to the desired end: the accumulation of power to be deployed in the service of America and of the world. What mattered to him was not what one said or did to rise to ultimate authority. What mattered was whether one was principled and selfless once in command. And as president of the United States, Bush was surely that.
For every compromise or concession to party orthodoxy or political expedience on the campaign trail, in office Bush ultimately did the right thing. In 1964, when he sought a Senate seat from Texas, he opposed the Civil Rights Act, only to vote for open housing once in Congress four years later, much to the fury of his conservative constituents. In 1988, he made an absolute pledge on supply-side economics — “Read my lips: No new taxes” — only to break that promise two years later, when he believed an agreement that included higher taxes was best for the country. And, after winning the hard-hitting 1988 race, he sought to bring about what he’d called a “kinder, gentler” America, reaching out to Democrats and Republicans alike, seeking common ground on common problems.
The nation mourns him not least because we no longer have a president who knows that the story of the nation is not all about him. In the last years of his life, Bush was asked how he’d like to be remembered. He didn’t pause — and he avoided, as ever, the first-person pronoun, what his mother used to call the “Great I Am” — and replied: “That we put the country first.” That such words seem so quaint is one of the many reasons we already miss him as much as we do.
Jon Meacham is the author of “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush.”
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