“It’s not about me or the party … it’s about the country.”
That quote by the late President George H.W. Bush is more than words, but a mantra that beckoned him to serve during World War II, serve the public, and eventually hold the nation’s highest office. He wasn’t a perfect man, but he did, according to all who knew him well, have integrity and compassion.
In 1988, Bush became the Republican presidential nominee, appealing for a “kinder, gentler nation.” To some, his words might’ve seemed weak, but Bush had a vision. In his inaugural speech, he said: “America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principal. 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.”
In that speech, he talked about America’s homeless, young mothers in need, the poor and even drug addicts who deserved help. Although he and I might not have agreed on solutions to our nation’s social problems, he offered a mix of compassion and hope — qualities often lacking in conservative politicians.
His inaugural speech also emphasized the importance of bipartisanship and cooperation. As president, Bush sought bipartisan solutions. Notably, the American Disabilities Act — landmark legislation that literally opened doors for those with disabilities and established anti-discrimination policies.
His presidency may be one that is easily overlooked, but Bush oversaw one of the most significant events of our time — the collapse of the Soviet Union. When the Berlin Wall fell, he did not take to the airways and claim victory. He set a clear example for other world leaders by nurturing the fallen nation. He feared fragile egos in the crumbling USSR could lead to dangerous, rogue actions. His leadership eventually led to a joint treaty between the U.S. and Russia to reduce the two nations’ nuclear arsenal.
Bush also achieved military victory in Iraq by invading the right country at the right time for the right reason and doing so with bipartisan Congressional approval, and the support and financial backing of our Middle East allies.
Despite his accomplishments, Bush would serve only one term as president. His keen sense of humor helped him endure the difficult loss of the 1992 election. In his final days in the White House, he invited comedienne Dana Carvey to a holiday party to improve staff morale. Carvey entered the East Room of the White House, dressed as the president, executing his dead-on Bush impression with exaggerated hand gestures. Bush enjoyed the performance — a testament to his humility.
Bush even showed grace on his way out. In his handwritten letter to Bill Clinton, a man he’d eventually call friend, he demonstrated how a transition in power should happen in the greatest democracy in the world. He wrote, in part: “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.”
As a progressive, I’d be amiss for not mentioning a few of his flaws: He was not always on the right side of the issue or history. He failed to adequately address the AIDS epidemic, even though it was at the time contributing to tens of thousands of deaths each year; he opposed LGBTQ rights (though he’d serve as a witness to a gay marriage of two friends later in life); and his costly war on drugs was more effective at locking up addicts than providing treatments.
This column isn’t about Bush’s failings, but about his willingness to cooperate for the good of the country and to lead with humility … something sorely lacking in today’s politics.
Throughout his personal and public life, he demonstrated humility, compassion, humor and grace. He didn’t mock the disabled, he provided them with safeguards. He was a war hero who respected his fellow servicemen. He was graceful in his losses, placed nation above party, showed compassion for those in need and was able to laugh at his shortcomings.
A WWII veteran, Bush was the last president of the “Greatest Generation.” We mourn his loss and remember the man who once occupied the White House. Perhaps someday we can return to the days of decorum, dignity and discipline.
(Faraguna is a founding member of Susquehanna Valley Progress, which provides a “Working for Progress” column for every other Sunday.)