If there's a contest for the most consequential president of the last 40 years, most people would say the winner is Ronald Reagan. He was the hero of at least two generations of Republican politicians, and even Democrats, like former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, tried to define themselves in the shadow of his legacy.
But the real victor of our imaginary contest would have to be George H.W. Bush.
Bush, who died Friday at age 94, was the first president of the post-Cold War era, a time when it briefly seemed the United States might lead the world as the manager of unipolar "new world order." He responded to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait by going to war in the Middle East — a decision that continues to reverberate through the region and American foreign policy. He presented himself to Americans as an anti-tax warrior — "read my lips," he said — then reversed course, cutting a deal to raise taxes in order to rein in a ballooning deficit, serving an object lesson for Republican officeholders ever since.
He served only one term, but by the time the 21st century rolled around — just eight years after he was voted out of office — nostalgia for Bush's presidency was profound enough that Republicans nominated his son to be president based largely on their shared name. The result was a presidency so disastrous, both domestically and in foreign policy, that it left the nation desperate for a dramatic change in leadership. In part, it facilitated the election of Barack Obama, the nation's first African-American president. And the backlash to that presidency enabled the rise of Donald Trump.
The story of how America got to this point, in other words, starts largely with the presidency of George H.W. Bush. That's kind of remarkable, given that he once confessed to lacking "the vision thing."
Bush's legacy isn't entirely positive, though.
The remembrances over the next few days will surely contrast the decency of Bush against President Trump, but there were hints of Trump's dark approach in Bush's politics. Bush never called the media "the enemy of the people," but he once picked a fight with Dan Rather on live television. He was never so blatant in his racism as Trump, but his 1988 election campaign gave us Willie Horton in one of the ugliest election ads in history. And, like Trump, he also tried to buff up his populist bona fides by complaining about "liberal elites" — even professing what seemed to be an improbable fondness for pork rinds. Very late in his life, he got into some #MeToo trouble.
But there's no denying Bush seemed genuinely committed to public service. He was the last president who truly had skin in the game of this country's military actions, fighting against the Japanese in World War II — and getting shot down over the Pacific. Like few Republican presidents before or since, he encouraged other Americans to go out and serve their communities, memorably praising such efforts in his "thousand points of light" speech.
He was difficult to hate, but rarely inspired much love, either. He could be ridiculous — remember when he vomited on the Japanese prime minister? — and at one point, he seemed more an object of comedy than of reverence. The fondness that Americans have for him now mostly grew after he left office in 1993.
One of his greatest acts of service, in fact, might've come during his post-presidency: He became friends with Bill Clinton.
That sounds like a joke. It isn't. The partnership between the two men was a philanthropic success story — the two raised tens of millions of dollars in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for example — but it was also an important example to the increasingly polarized country: There was every reason for the two men, who had battled for the presidency, to hate each other. Instead, they seemingly became genuinely fond of one another. "Your success now is our country's success," Bush wrote in an Inauguration Day letter to Clinton in 1993. "I am rooting hard for you."
That's what we'll be mourning the next few days — not just Bush himself, but the idea of an America where we could root for each other, the hazy memory of a time when we weren't in a constant state of political rage. We need much more than simple amiability to heal our politics, but George H.W. Bush proved that a little bit more of it couldn't hurt.