In these times of seemingly unceasing vitriol, America laid to rest a man whose message called for a “kinder, gentler” nation.
Historian Jon Meacham called him “America’s last great soldier-statesman, a 20th century Founding Father.”
The memorials and tributes to George Herbert Walker Bush are important reminders of the extraordinary life and service of the nation’s 41st president.
A World War II aviator, Central Intelligence director, businessman, congressman, ambassador, vice president, president, husband of First Lady Barbara Bush and father to the nation’s 43rd president, the accomplishments of this American statesman are remarkable.
If we forget all that President Bush did for us, it’s “because he preferred to shine, not upon himself, but to shine to others,” his pastor, the Rev. Dr. Russell Levenson Jr., said during the funeral service at the Washington National Cathedral.
Such humility was learned from his mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, who taught him that no one likes a braggart and warned against what she called “The Great I Am.” Sound advice in the Age of Narcissism where so many boast of how wonderful they are on their social media mirrors.
In his acceptance speech in 1988 after receiving his party’s nomination, Bush famously called for a “kinder, gentler nation.” But those who mistook his kindness for weakness did so at their peril. A man who enlisted in the Navy shortly after Pearl Harbor on his 18th birthday and became an aviator indicates the steel this leader of the Greatest Generation was made of.
What were you doing the summer you turned 20? former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney wondered, during his tribute to his friend.
Bush was preparing to attack Japanese war installations in the Pacific.
“He was part of a courageous generation of young Americans who led the charge – against overwhelming odds – in the historic and bloody battle for supremacy in the Pacific against the colossal military might of Imperial Japan. That’s what George Bush did the summer he turned 20,” Mulroney said.
When his plane was struck, Bush parachuted into the ocean. Two crewmates were lost. In the ensuing decades, Bush would often ask himself why he was spared.
“And in a sense, the rest of his life was a perennial effort to prove himself worthy of his salvation on that distant morning,” Meacham said. “To him, his life was no longer his own. There were always more missions to undertake, more lives to touch and more love to give. And what a headlong race he made of it all. He never slowed down.”
His son, the 43rd president, said he once heard someone say “The idea is to die young, as late as possible.”
And from racing across the Atlantic in his boat, the Fidelity, in his 80s, to parachuting out of an aircraft at age 90, to delighting in his closest friend, James Baker, smuggling in Grey Goose to his hospital room in his 90s, he followed that maxim. His father knew how to die young, his son said, because he almost died twice, from a staph infection as a teenager and during World War II.
“For Dad’s part, I think those brushes with death made him cherish the gift of life. And he vowed to live every day to the fullest,” the younger Bush said.
His father was an optimist, his son said, valuing character over pedigree.
“And he was no cynic. He looked for the good in each person — and usually found it. ... In victory, he shared credit. When he lost, he shouldered the blame. He accepted that failure is a part of living a full life, but taught us never to be defined by failure. He showed us how setbacks can strengthen.”
That character was never on better display than with the letter he left in the Oval Office for the incoming president Bill Clinton, who denied him a second term.
Dated Jan. 20, 1993, Bush’s letter reads in part, “There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.
“You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.
“Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”
Bush’s life code, Meacham said, was “‘Tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Be strong. Do your best. Try hard. Forgive. Stay the course.’ And that was and is the most American of creeds. Abraham Lincoln’s ‘better angels of our nature’ and George H.W. Bush’s ‘thousand points of light’ are companion verses in America’s national hymn. For Lincoln and Bush both called on us to choose the right over the convenient, to hope rather than to fear and to heed not our worst impulses, but our best instincts.
His role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and reunification of a divided Germany, implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act and Clean Air Act and leadership in the Gulf War, where U.S.-led coalition forces knocked Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army out of Kuwait without bogging the U.S. down in an endless occupation, changed the country and the world.
“There is a word for this: it is called leadership — and let me tell you that when George Bush was president of the United States of America, every single head of government in the world knew they were dealing with a true gentleman, a genuine leader — one who was distinguished, resolute and brave,” Mulroney said.
Bush kept a small plaque on the side of his house at Walker’s Point in Kennebunkport, Maine, which reads: “CAVU,” standing for “ceiling and visibility unlimited.”
In his retirement, Bush once told Mulroney that when he was a terrified young pilot in the Pacific, those were the words he hoped to hear before takeoff.
“It meant perfect flying. That’s the way I feel about our life today – CAVU – everything is perfect. Bar and I could not have asked for better lives. We are truly happy and truly at peace.”
George H.W. Bush left America a better nation. May he rest in peace, once again united with his beloved wife and daughter after a life of exceptional service to his country, his family and his God.