I’ve always liked George Herbert Walker Bush.
I realize, as I write those words, that it’s somewhat inappropriate and maybe even a little pretentious to use the term “liked” in reference to a former President of the United States who I never met or knew personally. It implies a familiarity I certainly can’t claim. Words like “respected” or “admired” might be more suitable, and are certainly applicable. But, in truth, “liked” is what comes immediately to mind. So, why is that? I think it’s because what has resonated with me as I’ve watched and read the various tributes since his passing a couple of weeks ago, and what probably resonates with most Canadians, are the fundamental human qualities- honesty and vulnerability-he maintained through his life. A few quotations provide insight into the character of the man.
In describing his neurologic symptoms that confined him to a wheelchair during his later years:
“It just affects the legs. It’s not painful. You tell your legs to move and they don’t move. It’s strange, but if you have some bad-sounding disease, this is a good one to get.”
While he was president, he famously indulged a life-long food preference by banning broccoli on Air Force One:
“I do not like broccoli. I’m president of the United States, and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli.”
In ending a contentious discussion with his Secretary of State James Baker:
“If you’re so smart, Baker, why am I president and you’re not?”
How can you not like someone so genuine?
Despite being what we might term a person of privilege, he seemed and acted like a regular, decent, fair and unfailingly respectful person caught up in powerful roles and great events. In terms of attitude and character he was, one might respectfully conjecture, an American that many Canadians can identify with and feel a certain kinship.
But none of that should detract from what he did or accomplished through his life. He was, arguably, the most qualified and best prepared person ever to assume the presidency, having previously served his country as a World War II combat pilot, two terms in congress, Ambassador to the United Nations, Special Envoy to China, Director of the CIA and two terms as Vice-President.
He advanced environmental concerns and worked to reduce trade barriers in North America. He led the US at a time when it was the only significant superpower in the world and could therefore have exerted unilateral authority. But he chose not to. Instead, he responded to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait by firstly seeking the advice of the Canadian Prime Minister of the time, Brian Mulroney, and then working through the United Nations to form a multi-national coalition to engage the threat. When the former Soviet Union collapsed, he cautioned against gloating and maintained a respectful attitude. In a recent statement current Russian President Vladimir Putin provided the following tribute:
“George Bush Sr. was well aware of the importance of a constructive dialogue between the two major nuclear powers and took great efforts to strengthen Russian-American relations and cooperation in international security,”
He never wrote an autobiography, but wrote thousands of personal letters, casually composed but highly articulate and poignant, cherished by those who received them.
What is perhaps most remarkable about him is that, despite being what we might consider a “person of privilege” who could easily have chosen a life of quiet and private comfort, he made deliberate choices to engage public service, beginning with his decision to drop out of school and voluntarily enlist in the Navy at the age of 18 against family advice. He became a naval aviator undertaking 58 combat missions, during one of which he was shot down and had to be rescued at sea. That would have been enough for most people. Returning home after the war, he could easily and understandably have entered a comfortable private life as a successful businessman, but instead chose public service leading to the numerous positions and culminating in the presidency in 1988.
His family members, who have themselves taken up positions of social and political responsibility, remember his exhortation of “Service before Self”.
Perhaps the most revealing GHW Bush quotation are the words of a note he left in the Oval Office for his successor, Bill Clinton, who defeated him in the 1992 presidential election:
The last five sentences are perhaps the most telling of all and speak volumes about the author
You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success is now our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.
Truly a life of Service before Self. A legacy and example for his nation. Indeed, for us all.