Like millions of Americans I was saddened to learn on Friday evening that President George H.W. Bush had died at the age of 94. I was not terribly surprised, however, and not only on account of his advanced years. I had not expected him to outlast his wife of 70 years, the sparklingly jolly Barbara.
Duty and honor were the great themes in the career of this extraordinary public servant, but the animating force behind them was love — of his family, of this country and her people, and above all of God.
Bush was born in 1924, the son of Prescott Bush, an investment banker who would later represent Connecticut in the Senate. Classmates tell stories of their school days at Philips Academy Andover, where "Poppy" Bush was a defender of the weak against the sadistic bullies who flourished in old-fashioned boarding schools. At the age of 18, he volunteered for the Navy and carried out 58 bomber missions. Over Chichijima his engine caught fire, but he hit his targets anyway before ejecting. He was rescued many hours later by a submarine. After the war he returned to marry Barbara Pierce, whom he had taken to a school dance just before Christmas in 1941. The couple moved to New Haven, where Bush played first base on the Yale baseball team and earned a bachelor's degree in two and a half years before moving his young family to Texas, where he went into the oil business.
Bush's political career began in earnest in 1966, when he was elected to the House to represent Texas' 7th Congressional District. From the beginning he distinguished himself with his willingness to break with members of his party and with his constituents — over the Fair Housing Act, for example, which he voted for in 1968. In 1970, at the request of President Nixon, he ran for the Senate and lost by a wide margin to Lloyd Bentsen in what was then still a heavily Democratic state. He was rewarded for his loyalty with a series of demanding but somewhat unglamorous positions — ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee during Watergate, unofficial ambassador to China, and director of the CIA.
In 1980 after a return to the private sector — including a stint teaching at Rice University, which he claimed to have enjoyed very much — he ran for president. After dropping out in May, he did not expect to find himself chosen as Ronald Reagan's running mate. As vice president he was thoroughly old-fashioned, deferring to his boss and doing thankless diplomatic work. One anecdote from this period sums up his character. After the attempt on the president's life by John Hinkley in 1981, Bush was flown from Texas to Washington and urged to proceed by helicopter directly to the White House. He refused to do so, arguing that "Only the president lands on the South Lawn." Reagan was touched by this gesture, and it was only from that period that the two men began to lunch regularly in the Oval Office.
Bush's own presidency is an enigma to earnest College Republican types. He was not a "movement" conservative. He had dismissed Reaganism as "voodoo economics," a remark he later regretted for personal reasons rather than because he became a convert to the Friedmanite gospel. This explains his willingness to raise taxes for the good of the country when so many others who prattled on about balanced budgets would not. He had little patience for the antics of Second Amendment absolutists and other loud-mouthed enthusiastic types in the conservative caucus. His conservatism was pragmatic and paternalistic rather than libertarian. He spoke the old-fashioned language of solidarity with ease, though he had little patience for the empty self-aggrandizement that is expected of modern politicians. Cynics sneered at his talk of our becoming a "kinder, gentler" nation and the "thousand points of light." We miss it now.
His greatest achievements in the White House were in foreign policy. Not since World War II had the United States waged a successful military campaign on the scale of the Gulf War, which was carried to its conclusion swiftly and efficiently. More important still was his deft stage management of the end of the Cold War. Following the noble ambitions of his predecessor, Bush did everything he could to prevent nuclear proliferation in the former Soviet Union — and succeeded. His early warnings against "suicidal nationalism" in the former satellite countries seem astonishingly prescient now.
Bush was the last important politician to embody all the old WASP virtues — decency, stoicism, self-denial, gentle wit, skepticism, and courtesy — and, at the time of his death, our greatest living president.