EDITORIAL: With Bush goes a kinder, gentler era
Even had George H.W. Bush not been elected America’s 41st president, his life and career still would have been worthy of admiration.
A World War II fighter pilot, member of Congress, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee, envoy to China, director of the CIA and vice president to arguably the most popular Republican president since Theodore Roosevelt, Bush, who died Friday at age 94, was at the center of his nation’s political life for nearly half a century.
As the father of two-term president George W. Bush and a second presidential aspirant, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the elder Bush’s perspectives and influence extended well into the 21st century.
Sadly, his sensibilities and demeanor, for the most part, did not.
The political world of today boasts few who could be described as ideological descendants of the elder Bush, who placed premiums on collaboration, humility and prudence.
It is difficult to imagine, for example, the current occupant of the Oval Office — or many of those who challenged him in 2016 — forming the kind of global coalition that Bush put together to beat back the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
The Bush administration’s deft use of diplomacy, statesmanship and moral authority created an alliance of some three dozen nations — including several from the Middle East — that, with U.N. backing, expelled the occupying Iraqis within six months.
Militarily, it was a rout. A ceasefire was called some 100 hours after the ground campaign was launched. Coalition losses were minimal (fewer than 300 troops killed; compared to as many as 100,000 Iraqi soldiers). Bush was hailed as an international champion of freedom; his approval rating among Americans flirting with 90 percent.
It was the high point of his four years in the White House. Subsequent second-guessing about the wisdom of not storming Iraq and removing then-leader Saddam Hussein (though that was never the coalition’s mission) took some of the bloom off the victory. America turned its focus to domestic considerations, including a sluggish economy. And Bush was defeated in his 1992 reelection bid by Democrat Bill Clinton (with a little help from third-party candidate Ross Perot).
But by then, President Bush had managed the early years of the post-Cold War, pushing for the reunification of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall and refusing unseemly declarations of victory so as to allow Soviet communism to whither quietly.
There were other accomplishments: Bush signed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, ousted Panamanian leader/drug lord Manuel Noriega, oversaw a bailout of the sinking Savings & Loan industry, strengthened the Clean Air Act, and took steps to curb the nation’s ballooning (for the time) annual deficit of $400 billion.
This last achievement led to his political demise. In taking steps to put the nation on firmer fiscal footing, Bush went back on his pledge of “no new taxes,” infuriating the conservative wing of his party.
He left politics as he practiced it: with class and quiet charisma. He enjoyed the final decades of his 73-year marriage to the late Barbara Bush. And he joined forces with his onetime political rival, Clinton, to establish a relief effort that raised hundreds of millions of dollars in the wake of the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Still, whether building a global coalition or engaging members of both parties on domestic legislation, Bush was always modest and mannered, fair-minded and optimistic. He demonstrated a quiet authority and personable spirit that seem as long-forgotten in the world of politics today as the Berlin Wall that fell on his watch.
Bush’s advocacy of a “kinder, gentler nation” led by “a thousand points of light” has been replaced by chants “build that wall” and “lock her up,” and neither the nation nor its politics is the better for it.
Former President George H.W. Bush, the man, will now be sorely missed. His courteous brand of politics has already long been mourned.