History will be kinder to the late President George H.W. Bush than were the voters of 1992. At the time of his inauguration in 1989, the Soviet Union still existed, the Berlin Wall stood as a formidable barrier and nuclear war was a real possibility. Four years later, the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall had collapsed and the threat of nuclear war had diminished. Bush, whose state funeral will be Wednesday at the Washington National Cathedral, was a leader who spent his life serving his country and believing America should fully engage in the world rather than stand apart from it.
During a one-term presidency in which the world shifted on its axis so much that one intellectual famously mused it was “the end of history,” Bush navigated the collapse of Communism with a deft diplomatic hand and later assembled a military coalition to push Iraq’s Saddam Hussein out of tiny Kuwait in 1991. Operation Desert Storm, orchestrated by Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base, restored American faith that the military could be a force for good. Right after the short war ended, Bush’s approval rating skyrocketed to 89 percent, a record at the time.
But soon the economy tanked, and the right wing of the Republican Party considered Bush insufficiently conservative by Reagan Republican standards. He had brokered a deal with Democrats to raise taxes and curb spending, and in breaking his “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge he alienated many Republicans, inviting insurgent challenges from within and a third-party candidate in Ross Perot. His approval rating fell from a record high to a near-record low, tumbling to 29 percent in the summer he was seeking re-election. In the end, he lost to Bill Clinton and joined the small club of presidents who lost elections after serving one term.
As the last of the Greatest Generation to serve as president, his resumé is recalls a time that seems almost unimaginable today. Months after Pearl Harbor, he signed up to fly warplanes off the deck of an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. He was shot down and rescued by submarine. After the war, he entered Yale and was a sports star, years that made such an impression that he kept his old first baseman’s mitt in his desk drawer in the Oval Office. He shared private thoughts in his diary for decades, and his favorite form of communication was the thoughtful hand-written note, not a text or a tweet.
Bush believed in public service, but he also was a calculating politician who once privately observed: “If you want to be president — and I do — there are certain things that I have to do.”
Some may argue that in ending the Cold War peaceably, Bush simply played the straight flush that President Ronald Reagan dealt him. But they miss the point. Only a skilled and accomplished negotiator — helped by the experience of having been both a vice president and the CIA director — could make it look so natural. He used those same abilities to push through cap-and-trade legislation that used the marketplace to cut the coal plant emissions that caused acid rain — a free-market lesson that should apply today to climate change and a carbon tax.
Bush put country before party and changed his mind when circumstances warranted. Ironically, the spending deal that helped cost Bush a second term helped set up the budget surpluses that would come under Clinton. They were political opponents, not sworn enemies. Perhaps that is why Clinton and Bush later became great friends, with Clinton sometimes being called Bush’s surrogate son. The work they did together in later years, notably after Hurricane Katrina, is a reminder that bipartisanship and compromise can make for great governance.
A man who became president, whose son George W. became president and son Jeb became governor of Florida, leaves a great legacy of public service. George H.W. Bush was a man of great ambition who channeled it to America’s considerable benefit at a seismic time when the nation most needed it. That is what history should remember.