Jon Meacham’s Biography of George Herbert Walker Bush is one of the finest biographies I can ever recall reading. It describes the life of a man whom I’ve admired for decades. The basis for that admiration—his strength and integrity and his commitment to service and his country and his family--was brought forth in a transparent and convincing way.
The book is greatly strengthened by Meacham’s judicious use of Bush’s diary which he dictated for much of his active life.
Bush’s role in overseeing the peaceful end of the Cold War in the late 1980s and early 1990s, his empathetic and constructive relationship with Gorbachev and his balanced judgment emerge clearly. His decency was remarkable.
I agree with Meacham’s judgment: “His life was spent in the service of his nation, in his spirit of conciliation, common sense and love of country will stand him in strong stead through the ebbs and flows of posterity’s judgment. On that score—that George H.W. Bush was a uniquely good man in a political universe where good men were hard to come by—that was shared by a bi-partisan consensus a quarter of a century after his White House years.
Bush in many ways was like John Smale and in some ways like myself. Modest but driven, almost always compassionate, he was out to serve but also to win. Yet he had his personal doubts. I think he failed to appreciate his full excellence, this despite a remarkable record of accomplishments: at Yale; in the service; in business and in public service: in Congress; Envoy to China; leading the CIA, etc.
I had no idea how many disappointments he had faced, above all the death of his and Barbara’s daughter, Robin, at the age of three. Losses in political elections, not getting the job he wanted. And indeed until the very last moment, feeling he would not get the Vice Presidential slot with Ronald Reagan.
I’m not sure Bush ever would have become President if he had not been the Vice President for Ronald Reagan. He learned so much from Reagan, though never, happily, tried to be like him.
Of the various tributes to George H.W. Bush, I rate none stronger than this. It came from his son Jeb: “How great is this country that it could elect a man as fine as our dad to be its President?” That remark so struck Laura Bush that she included it in the White House memoir she wrote after she and George W. left Washington in 2009.
I think it is fair to say, as Meacham does, that George H.W. Bush represented “the twilight of a tradition of public service in America, one embodied by FDR, by Eisenhower, and by George H.W. Bush.”
There is so much to be learned, and imitated, in Bush’s relationship with Gorbachev. It took the two of them. Bush fully understood how important it was to work constructively with Gorbachev. And so did Gorbachev with him. The “old suspicions” between the two super powers had to go, Bush said. Both nations had to learn how to thrive in a multi-polar world.
If only we had not lost that instinct. Gorbachev made a huge concession in agreeing to a united Germany and then, with great reluctance, agreeing for it to become a member of NATO. Gorbachev’s associates were dumb-founded that he agreed to do that.
Nowhere did Bush’s respect for and empathy with Gorbachev manifest itself more than in his reaction to the attempted overthrow of Gorbachev. He resisted John Major’s suggestion of convening the NATO ministers out of his fear that “it will make it look like we are militarizing and that we anticipate a military threat to the West...it is the last damn thing we need to get involved in in that kind of confrontation.”
And then he spoke with Gorbachev on the phone: “My dearest George,” Gorbachev said. “I am so happy to hear your voice again.” “My God,” Bush said, “I’m glad to hear you.” They spoke for 11 minutes. “He sounded jubilant and he sounded upbeat,” Bush dictated, “he was very, very grateful to me...for the way we have conducted ourselves.”
The peaceful resolution of this crisis was, for Bush, ratification of his essential diplomatic instincts of balance and moderation. “We could have overacted, and moved troops, and scared the hell out of people,” Bush told his diary. “We could have under-reacted by saying, ‘well, we will deal with whoever is there.’ But...I think we found the proper balance.”
The respect which Bush showed to other leaders was genuine and worked to great advantage. The relationship with French President Mitterrand was an example. There had been worry that France might not support the use of NATO outside of Europe in the circumstance of the Gulf War. However, when Bush asked for that support, Mitterrand simply said, “we will be there.” To his diary Bush confided that he felt that the visit he (Bush) had with Mitterrand at his place in Maine and “the respect I have tried to show him personally, (paid) off in diplomacy. I differ with his personal diplomacy, but I think when you talk from a basis of friendship, it does help; and I think he knows I respect him.”
As always, respect builds trust and trust means everything.
During the Gulf War, Bush reflected on the nature of American leadership. Gregarious and inclusive by nature, Meacham writes, he could uphold the Presidency in keeping with these essential elements of his own character. “All countries in the west clearly have to turn to us,” Bush told his diary, “but it is my theory that the more they are included on the take-off, the more we get their opinion, the more we reach out, no matter what is involved in terms of time involved, the better it is. Everyone is proud. Everyone has his place in the sun—large country or small, they should be consulted, their opinions considered and then when the United States makes a move, and I make a decision, we are more apt to have solid support.”
If only we conducted ourselves more in line with that conviction today. If only that spirit had permeated our relationship with Russia over the last 15 years. If we had, I do not believe we would be in the position we are today. The neocons, whom Bush resisted, but whose son, George W. Bush, sadly did not, have continued to have an influence that has been disruptive, in my view, to the best interests of the United States. George H.W. Bush demonstrated this more than ever as he decided not to occupy Iraq. The war to unseat Hussein, “to occupy Iraq would instantly shatter our coalition, turning the whole Arab world against us, and make a broken tyrant into a latter-day Arab hero,” Bush recalled in 1998. “It could only plunge that part of the world into ever greater instability and destroy the credibility we were working so hard to reestablish.” If only his son had followed this instinct.
The candor and honesty of Bush’s own self-reflections pours out of his diaries in a manner that I can sometimes identify with. The post-Gulf War period was, as Meacham describes it: “a study in shadow.” Coming off that intense experience, Bush had to turn back to what he really didn’t relish, domestic affairs, and it is clear to me he was tired. He was now 66. He fantasized in his diary about surprising the world by announcing that he would not seek reelection: “You need someone in this job (who can give) his total last ounce of energy, and I’ve had (that) up until now, but now I don’t seem to have the drive.” He was tired of what he described as “sniping, carping, bitching, predictable editorial complaints.”
But he continued on.
I’ll conclude these notes with a salute to George H.W. Bush by his son George, on the occasion of the commissioning of an aircraft carrier named after his father. “We will always be inspired by the faith, humor, patriotism, and compassion he taught us through his own example. And for as long as we live, we will carry with us Dad’s other lessons: that integrity and honor are worth more than any title or treasure, and that the truest strength did come from the gentlest soul.”
George H.W. Bush is a role model for me, for all of us.