Our generation can learn a lot from the greatest public servant of the Greatest Generation.
George H.W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States, passed away Nov. 30, 2018, at the age of 94. He served as president from 1989 to 1993, and was a World War II hero and a former Congressman, U.N. Ambassador, Chairman of the R.N.C., Envoy to China, C.I.A. Director, and the 43rd Vice President.
Bush grew up in a family of rich heritage and significant wealth. But it was service, duty, and giving back that mattered most. His nickname as a kid was “Have-Half” for his generosity-his upbringing was based on Luke 12:48: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” “Not for Self” translated his prep school’s Latin motto, and on his 18th birthday, the day he graduated and a few months after Pearl Harbor, Bush enlisted in the Navy and became one the youngest naval aviators.
Then, on Sep. 2, 1944, Lieutenant Junior Grade George H.W. Bush became a hero. He took off with his crewmen, Lieutenant Junior Grade William G. White and Radioman Second Class John Delaney, to bomb Chichijima, a Japanese base on the Pacific, but their plane was hit. Bush, choking from the smoke and piloting a crashing plane, completed the attack, dropping the bombs and damaging the target. “I wanted to finish my mission,” Bush recalled.
He told his crewmen to bail out of the crashing airplane, and then struggled to get out himself, hitting his head. He fell hard onto the sea, and the wind was blowing him towards the target he had just bombed, where American P.O.W.’s were the victims of ghastly war crimes, including cannibalism. After several hours at sea, agonizing about his own fate and the fate of his crewmen, Bush was rescued by the Finback, a 311-foot submarine.
Aboard the Finback for a month, he was humorous with the crew, but in his daily letters home and in his mind he replayed the incident: “I try to think about it as little as possible, yet I cannot get over the thought of those two boys out of my mind,” and “my heart aches for the families of those two boys with me.”
Jon Meacham, his biographer, writes of Bush’s recollection of the incident several decades later: “ ‘Their families…’ He stopped, tearing up. ‘I [wonder still] whether I did all I could. […] I know I did the right thing, telling everyone to bail out. But that doesn’t make the suffering of the other families any less.’ ”
Bush’s actions that day were heroic and he did the right thing indeed; in politics, though, he made mistakes.
He surrounded himself with cynical political operatives who race-baited and assassinated the character of Michael Dukakis, Bush’s opponent in the 1988 election. In office, he sometimes faltered even with the greatest of responsibilities on his shoulders: the failed War on Drugs, the fiasco that was the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, and the awfully insufficient, yet, despite contemporary belief of the opposite, not entirely non-existent, response to the AIDS crisis.
Yet, he much more often than not did the right thing.
As congressman, despite warnings from advisers that he would lose re-election if he were to vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1968, he went ahead and voted aye.
As president, he raised taxes, breaking his most memorable campaign pledge, “Read my lips: no new taxes,” and making his base furious. “Sound governance,” he explained. He signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Clean Air Act, the Immigration Act of 1990, and the Civil Rights Act of 1991, and appointed Gen. Colin Powell as the first black Chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff. He not only was personal friends with Democrats on Capitol Hill but also developed a father-son-like relationship with Bill Clinton, who beat Bush in 1992.
And even in his 90’s, Bush continued to evolve on the issues: “Personally, I still believe in traditional marriage. But people should be able to do what they want to do, without discrimination. People have a right to be happy. I guess you could say I have mellowed,” he wrote Meacham in 2015.
After all, Bush knew how important friendship and family was, for he had lost a many: his daughter Robin passed away from leukaemia in 1953 two months before her fourth birthday. Barbara, his wife of 73 years, passed away last April.
Bush and his wife raised another five kids, including, of course, George W. Bush, the 43rd President.
With a record as long as his, the fact that Bush’s mistakes were only a handful is testament to how successful a public servant he was. Great leaders are not perfect for they are human, fallible. Great leaders make a lot more right decisions than wrong decisions. And George Bush was such a leader.
His decision to launch Operation Desert Storm and liberate Kuwait, a key American ally, helpless against Saddam Hussein’s aggression, was one of the most successful military operations in recent times. Fearing another Vietnam, a drawn-out war with a high number of casualties, no specific military goal in mind, and public disapproval, at home and abroad, Bush sought public support, going through the Congress to authorize the military action, and summoned the U.N. to form a coalition that was the largest military alliance since W.W.II.
His steady hand in the tumultuous years of 1989-1991 prevented the world from descending into chaos that would not only erase the progress made since the end of W.W.II and in the late 1980’s when moderate reformists replaced communist hardliners behind the Iron Curtain, but also drain any ripple of hope of a world peace long before the current of relative peaceful order of the 1990’s could flow. The North American Free Trade Agreement; the peaceful reunification of Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall; the creation of the E.U.; the continuation of the approach to China (which Bush had helped build in the 1970’s as the Envoy there), combining diplomacy and firmness when the Tiananmen massacre took place; and the helping hand extended to the fragile Russian democracy after the dissolution of the Soviet Union (which was followed by the danger that nuclear weapons would fall in private hands, a potential crisis Bush helped prevent) all were made possible because of Bush’s cautious, prudent, and skilful foreign policy based on diplomatic friendships.
Graciously under pressure, he delivered the greatest ask and what ought to be the ultimate and most worthwhile goal of any leader in history: a safe and peaceful world.
On Christmas Eve 1990, with the deadline the U.N. had set for Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi military to end the occupation of Kuwait before taking military action fast approaching, Bush had James Russell Lowell’s poem “The Present Crisis” in mind: “It does hit me pretty hard-‘Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide.’ That moment is upon us.” Bush was decisive then but his most consequential decision was decades before, when he walked into the naval aviation offices in Boston to be sworn into the Navy and embark upon a lifetime of service to others and the common good.
Not for self, indeed.