Friday marks the 78th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a “day which will live in infamy” and which drew the United States into the Second World War. America and its allies fought and prevailed over totalitarian governments in Germany, Italy and Imperial Japan. The men and women who fought in that war, the “greatest generation” produced a legion of American political figures, among whom were Sens. Bob Dole and Daniel Inouye, both of whom were gravely wounded in service to our country, and seven future presidents. That group dominated American politics for nearly 40 years. George H.W. Bush, the last president to have served in World War II, passed away last Friday.
Bush enlisted on the very first day he was eligible to enter the Armed Forces. As a Navy pilot, he flew 58 missions in the Pacific Theater and was decorated for his distinguished service. His lifetime of service to the country continued after his discharge. He was elected to Congress, was United Nations ambassador, envoy to China, and CIA director; he was Ronald Reagan’s vice president, and in 1988, he ran against Democrat Michael Dukakis and won the presidency.
His tenure in office was marked by both successes and failures. His administration negotiated with the Soviet Union to obtain German reunification and admission to NATO, an action that contributed to the Soviet Union’s collapse. He ordered troops to Panama, resulting in the end of Manuel Noriega’s criminal rule and restoration of democratic rule there. If those stand out as triumphs, then Bush’s policies regarding Iraq are less clear. Operation Desert Storm pried Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s control, but it left Hussein and his repressive regime in power. The administration urged Iraqi dissidents to overthrow him but then failed to provide those rebels the support they needed to succeed. One could argue that his decisions after Operation Desert Storm contributed to the region’s instability.
Bush inherited the seeds of economic weakness that the Reagan administration’s tax cuts and the 1988 Savings and Loan crisis had inflicted; he put country over politics, compromising with congressional Democrats to develop a debt-reduction program with a modest tax increase and cuts in spending, including the bloated defense budget. Republican conservatives led by Newt Gingrich treated that as a betrayal of his campaign promise not to raise or introduce new taxes. Gingrich’s attacks on Bush raised his stature among right-wingers, even as it weakened Bush politically.
Bush’s record on environmental protection was mixed. He signed the Clean Air and Oil Pollution acts of 1990, but he also opposed higher automobile mileage standards. Like most Republicans of his generation, he opposed gay marriage, although he became more tolerant after leaving office: He and Barbara Bush were witnesses to a gay wedding in 2013.
His foreign policy successes were not enough to overcome the impression that his management of the economy was a failure. Bush became a one-term president when he lost his bid for re-election to Bill Clinton. As fate would have it, the two men became fast friends after both had left office; Bush’s son, President George W. Bush, tasked them to spearhead a humanitarian aid effort after a massive tsunami had devastated parts of Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka. They discovered that they had much more in common than that which divided them and remained close from that time on.
A few years ago, his granddaughter Jenna interviewed him, asking what he thought his legacy would be. Bush replied, “History will remember my failures and our successes.” This remark more than any other reveals his character. He accepted responsibility for those things that didn’t work as he had hoped, shared credit with others for those that did, and searched for common ground with those who disagreed with his policies. His conservative critics saw that as weakness, even as it enabled him to advance his agenda.
Bush will be remembered as the last moderate Republican, a man whose principles were fiscal responsibility, cooperation, and true patriotism. He will be remembered as a person defined by a lifetime of service to America. George Herbert Walker Bush was a pretty decent guy. We don’t need to agree on all his politics to wish that the current incumbent sincerely tries to adopt some of his qualities.