I have seen a few comments disparaging George Herbert Walker Bush and wanted to share some thoughts that fall somewhere between his unforgivable breach of a “no more taxes” pledge and the reverence of an almost sacred infallibility bestowed upon his role as one of “the greatest generation.” Some people say that George H W Bush can never be forgiven for breaking the tenets of party and promise. Others regard him as being beyond scrutiny for his service. It is in the middle that we find the man. And it is of the man I write.
President George H.W. Bush made a promise that he believed he could keep—only to later realize the cost to the country of saving his pride. And faced with the choice of doing what was politically expedient for himself or in the greater interests of his constituency, his decision fell along clear lines of a deeply ingrained integrity. Not living up to his “read my lips” pledge was not so much a failure as it was a personal sacrifice—falling upon his sword for a greater good. To some, that was unforgivable. But to those who have served, it is the expected consistency of ethics that place country over self. The irony is that while some see it simply as breaking a promise, the man found greater honesty to oath and country by breaking that promise than keeping it. It was a true profile in courage.
My vote for him over Mike Dukakis in 1988 was a no-brainer. My vote for Clinton four years later, however, was not without a deep lament for the man I had both admired and served under. Bush’s party made it clear, however, that the GOP tent was shrinking from a thousand points of light to an exclusive club of pious morality. It was the spectacle of the 1992 Republican National Convention in which he – and the party – lost me. The speakers who dominated that event included such names as Pat Robertson and Patrick Buchanan, the latter whose speech on “culture war” reminded me of a Munich Beer Hall in the 1930’s and even prompted one humorist to remark that it “probably sounded better in the original German.” The man who led us to victory in the Persian Gulf seemed unable to lead his own party to the sweeping vision of a kinder and gentler nation.
And it was kindness that marked the man. While his party changed, George and Barbara Bush may have failed to navigate their hearts through a changing GOP, but their hearts never hardened to meet it.
To those of you who disagree, something from another President’s book, in which I imagine George Herbert Walker Bush could have been a chapter, says it best. John F. Kennedy wrote in Profiles in Courage about Senator Thomas Hart Benton. As a kingpin pre-Civil War slave state Senator, he cast his personal and political fortunes to the wind in an effort to fight the popular sentiment of secession and keep Missouri in the union. One of his greatest political adversaries was Texas Senator John C. Calhoun, a party leader who called Benton “false to the south” and traitorous. Benton similarly returned the fiery rhetoric until Calhoun fell ill and was close to death. When questioned why he ceased his denunciations of Calhoun, Benton said simply, “When God Almighty lays his hand upon a man, sir, I take mine off. Sir.”
That principled elegance and grace is what I saw in George Herbert Walker Bush, and what I hope marks the responses to this thread by those who might argue what I’ve shared. Regardless of where his politics were, George Herbert Walker Bush worked from his deep gut of honor, conscience, and decency. Our nation is a little less than what it was for his loss.