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Remembering the kinder and gentler politics of George Bush

The elder president George Bush who died Friday at age 94, will be mourned widely this week (with mail service even being suspended Wednesday). His passing is an opportune time to reflect not only on what he accomplished but on how he achieved political success – through chivalry, civil behavior and willingness to compromise.

In many of the memoriams already published, he was hailed as one of the greatest single-term presidents in American history primarily for navigating the world through the collapse of the Soviet Union. As one television commentator remarked, the collapse unfolded while Ronald Reagan was president and George Herbert Walker Bush was vice president, but it took Bush four more years as president “to land the plane.”

Where we may draw lessons from the life of the 41st president for all levels of politics, from the biggest international decision down to our city council, is seeing the effectiveness and tone of the diplomacy he used. Bush was a true public servant and a good man, both behind the scenes and in the image presented to the world.

Congressman Doug Collins this week offered the following praise for him, “I’ll always remember President George H.W. Bush as a servant leader dedicated to America’s role as an agent of good in a complex world. He was a man of many titles, but what strikes me most are his humanity and his belief that his greatest titles were husband and father.”

Bush, who flew numerous combat missions in World War II (the last president we’ll have from the Greatest Generation) was no wimp – a term some unfairly criticized him with for not being more partisan.

The 41st president recognized different viewpoints, treated those who held them with respect and forged working relationships. Inside his own party with the beginning of the more conservative strains, Bush was able to hold a solid center.

And across party lines, Bush and his successor Bill Clinton went on to work together on numerous projects and by most accounts, they truly cooperated  in public and private.

Bush’s temperament has often been characterized by two words from his inaugural address in 1989 when he referenced the need for a “kinder” and “gentler” America. Less than 50 years later, the actual lines in his address before the Capitol would seem not only old-fashioned but absolutely in contrast to the bombast today. “America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world,” he said. 

Contrast Bush’s studied restraint, a role model of gentlemanly behavior, to constant chest-beating which passes for political discussion today.

Perhaps the clearest explanation of the restraint and reserve that Bush modeled came from the final note he left in the White House for incoming President Bill Clinton – a man who had just beaten him in the election.

Bush opened by wishing him and his family well. Bush wrote hundreds of personal notes while in office to express gratitude, congratulations or sympathy.

He then closed his note to Clinton by stating, “Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”

That one sentiment, after the election is over we all need to work together, is strikingly absent in politics today.

As the nation mourns the 41st president, let’s also hold up the role model of George Herbert Walker Bush’s kinder and gentler America.