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Horowitz: George H. W. Bush - An Appreciation

Tuesday, December 04, 2018


George H.W. Bush

Several years ago, Barack Obama, who awarded George H.W. Bush the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, the nation’s highest civilian honor, told the historian and Bush biographer, Jon Meacham, that “As good a measure of a president as I know is somebody who ultimately puts the country first and it strikes me that throughout his life he did that, both before he was president, and while he was president, and ever since.”

Bush’s service to the nation began at a young age, as he volunteered for World War II at 18 upon graduation from high school. A decorated Navy pilot, he flew 58 missions, nearly losing his life when his plane was shot down. Before winning the presidential election in 1988, Bush served as a Congressman, Chair of the Republican National Committee, US Envoy to China (essentially our unofficial ambassador in the days before we officially recognized China), and Vice President.

As President, he skillfully managed the end of the Cold War, successfully guiding the reunification of Germany as well as navigating the emerging of democracy in former Soviet satellites, and the wrenching changes in the Soviet Union as that nation shed territory-- not always voluntarily-- and became the Russian Federation. Bush’s expert and steady diplomacy, ensured a peaceful transition to a safer and freer, post-Cold War world.  These positive developments were in no way preordained.

Bush repelled Iraqi aggression, expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait at little cost in American lives and treasure.  The 41st president won UN approval for our actions and made the prudent decision not to expand the conflict by invading Iraq and overthrowing the dictator-- a decision which looks even wiser with the benefit of hindsight.

On the home-front, he won adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act, enabling people with disabilities to participate fully in the promise of America and strengthened the Clean Air Act, forging a principled compromise with Senate Majority Leader (D-MN).  At a high political price, Bush worked to reduce the deficit, reaching an agreement with the Democrats who controlled both houses of Congress during his presidency, on a combination of tax increases and spending controls. In doing so, he went back on the “Read my lips, no new taxes” pledge he made in the presidential campaign with the full realization that he was putting his re-election at risk. In other words, he put the well-being of the nation ahead of his own political well-being.

A fierce competitor with the ambition and ego it took to run for president, George HW Bush did make his fair share of politically motivated decisions.  His move to the right on social issues, such as abortion, always seemed more about politics than principle. And he ran a famously hard-edged negative campaign, including the racially tinged Willie Horton ad done technically by an independent group, but one with close ties to his campaign, in his successful effort to come from behind and overtake Michael Dukakis and win the 1988 presidential election.

But as Bill Clinton said, when he released over the weekend the gracious handwritten letter, the man he defeated left for him, “He was an honorable, gracious and decent man who believed in the United States, our Constitution, our institutions and our shared future,”

A child of privilege, George H.W. Bush believed strongly in the old saying that” for those whom much is given, much is expected.”  An exemplary of our greatest generation, his life of distinguished public service serves as a refreshing example of how one can participate at the highest levels of public life and keep their essential humanity. In these divisive and nasty political times, spending this week remembering the remarkable life of this remarkable man, maybe just the kind of tonic we need.

Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island


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