Late Friday night, the world learned that former President George Herbert Walker Bush died at age 94. For those aware of his many health issues in recent years – and his heartache over losing his wife, Barbara, seven months ago – the news came with sadness but little surprise.
Tributes are pouring in from all living presidents, current and former world leaders, and countless people touched either personally or professionally by their time with Mr. Bush.
I extend my deepest condolences to the Bush family on their tremendous loss, and for their pain of losing two parents in the span of just a few months. I pray the Lord will strengthen them and comfort them in the days ahead and that our nation extends to them the respect they’re due.
As is inevitable with the death of any president, the assessing of their legacy starts almost immediately. Bush has a long legacy of service and accomplishments – much of it thoroughly admirable and some of it disappointing from the perspective of those expecting him to lead as a conservative.
Before I offer my assessment of that legacy, let me caution you to take what you’re hearing today from the mainstream media about Mr. Bush with a mountain of salt.
Today, they’re lauding him for his commitment to public service, his devotion to freedom, the relationships he built on both sides of the aisle, and his fundamental decency towards fierce rivals once campaigns were over.
But all of that was true when Bush was standing in the center of the political stage, and the media reviled him anyway. They mocked him for coming from a wealthy family, even though Bush left the comforts of New England to strike out on his own in Texas.
They pushed the “wimp” label on a man who volunteered to serve his country as a combat aviator in the U.S. Navy during World War II and survived being shot down in the Pacific.
They said Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm was all about Bush helping his buddies in the fossil fuels industry. Remember the press highlighting the “No Blood for Oil” protests and saying Bush was getting us bogged down in another Vietnam? I do.
In 1992, the man now lauded as one of finest men of the 20th century was called old, out of touch, and responsible for a supposedly floundering economy by a media that couldn’t care less about fundamental decency and honorable service when Bush matched up against Bill Clinton.
That’s a short list. And it’s nothing new. The press despised Ronald Reagan too. But when the Gipper died in 2004, the media heaped praise on him as well, mainly as a way of criticizing President George W. Bush.
Hopefully, some have had time to re-evaluate Bush in an honest manner, but many simply see this news as a way of attacking President Trump for his far different approach to the presidency and his adversaries.
So what is the Bush legacy? Service above self. Faith, family, and country above all else. And while many conservatives wish there were more wins during his four years in office, there is plenty to celebrate from Bush’s life.
I have the honor of conducting oral history interviews with our wonderful veterans. The vast majority are among the most selfless people you will ever meet. I still meet World War II veterans who get emotional in describing how imperative it was for them to join the fight to save their country and the free world. That same conviction explains why Bush ditched his “patrician” roots and risked his life half a world away.
He then stuck his neck out in the Texas oil business and struck it rich. He could have just been a nicer version of J.R. Ewing and watched profits roll in and led industry advancement for the decades to come. Instead he followed his family’s biblical belief that to whom much is given, much is required.
By the time he first ran for president in 1980, he had been a congressman, nominated twice for U.S. Senate, United Nations ambassador, Republican National Committee Chairman, liaison to China, and director of the CIA. By the time he won the presidency in 1988, he had eight years of being vice president under his belt as well. That experience blows away any candidate in modern history, including the one two years ago who was supposedly the most qualified nominee in history.
But calling Bush a conservative was a stretch. In 1980, he derided Reagan’s economic agenda as “voodoo economics” and considered himself pro-choice, a position he would change when joining Reagan on the ticket that year. He also had a much more measured strategy for dealing with Soviet aggression.
Eight years by Reagan’s side added some boldness to Bush’s already seasoned foreign policy. His firmness and humility charted the best possible course as the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union imploded two years later.
As aides have reminded us in recent hours, his resolute commitment to expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1990-1991 was not just about oil, but about making sure the world did not face another menace like the one he helped to defeat in World War II.
Domestically, there were more disappointments for conservatives. In 1988, Bush sparked a major comeback against Democrat Michael Dukakis by insisting he would never raise taxes, no matter how much Democratic congressional majorities insisted upon it.
He broke his “Read My Lips” pledge in 1990, when Democrats convinced him spending cuts would total more than the tax hikes in an effort to rein in deficits. Reagan made a similar deal eight years earlier to raise taxes in exchange for promised spending cuts. Both times the Democratic majorities never followed through. Naturally, the media are treating this as one of his greatest accomplishments.
Another major legacy for Bush is found in his two selections for the U.S. Supreme Court. Entering office in the wake of the ugly Robert Bork confirmation fight and eventual confirmation of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Bush was determined not to have a nominee with such a detailed track record when liberal Justice William Brennan retired in 1990.
As a result, he let his New Hampshire friends – Chief of Staff John Sununu and Sen. Warren Rudman – talk him into nominating Judge David Souter, whom Bush seemed to know next to nothing about. Souter got confirmed but ended up being a reliable liberal vote. It was an opportunity needlessly wasted.
To Bush’s credit, he didn’t make the same mistake twice. When Justice Thurgood Marshall hung up his robes in 1991, Bush nominated Judge Clarence Thomas.
After the original confirmation hearings were finished, Thomas was accused of sexual harassment by a former federal colleague named Anita Hill. With Democrats controlling the Senate, the Thomas nomination was hanging by a thread.
A true wimp would have pulled the Thomas nomination and started over. Bush didn’t do that. He believed in Thomas and stuck behind him. Thomas has been a conservative rock on the court and is now the longest-serving justice.
Bush was also legendary as a family man, and multiple generations of that family clearly adored him.
He was also kind to those who could do little to nothing for him politically. He was revered by the White House staff and genuinely loved people, the latter of which I saw first hand.
In 1986, then-Vice President Bush came to my small city of Iron Mountain, Michigan, to stump for GOP Rep. Bob Davis. The plan was for Bush to land at the airport, greet local officials, and immediately get into his motorcade. When he saw a few hundred people cheering his arrival, he made a beeline for the fence, even though none of us had been screened by Secret Service. He shook every hand he could reach and made a face-to-face connection with virtually all of us.
Sure he was trying to help Republicans win votes, but his comment to the local paper was that the people seemed so friendly that he couldn’t just leave without coming over to say hello to us. He even spent a moment with me, though I wasn’t old enough to vote.
George Herbert Walker Bush leaves a deep and lasting legacy, much of it good. He was not as conservative as he could have been and there are lasting consequences for that. But his steady leadership in guiding America and the world through the fall of the Soviet Union the eviction of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait deserves great praise.
And his life is an American story. He did not have the rags to riches ascension to the White House like Reagan or Clinton, but Bush understood how special America is, served her gladly, pursued opportunities provided here to build his own success, and through his own actions and own humility showed us a sterling example of devotion to God, family, and this great nation.
May God bless the nation George Bush loved and led.