When he first campaigned for president in Pennsylvania in 1980, George H.W. Bush ran on the slogan “A President We Won’t Have to Train.” That was a reflection of his career up to that point: He’d already been a war hero, congressman, ambassador to the United Nations, envoy to China, and director of the CIA. Still to come were the credentials of vice president and commander in chief.
History will record him as the man who signed into law the Americans With Disabilities Act, who did raise taxes, who instituted a temporary ban on assault rifles and later renounced his lifetime membership in the National Rifle Association. He presided over the fall of the Berlin Wall, signed START I with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, and began the NAFTA negotiations. Of course, when he ran for president and won in 1988, he offered six words — “Read my lips: No new taxes” — that would come back to haunt him four years later. He would also later form a close personal bond with the man who beat him in 1992, Bill Clinton.
President Bush, for whom I worked as a subcabinet level appointee at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, celebrated his 88th birthday last week, and he is finally being feted for his long and distinguished service to our nation. Last week, HBO televised a 90-minute documentary aptly named “41” celebrating his life. The film is an endearing look at a former president who is now physically limited by Parkinson’s but remains mentally focused with a sharp recollection of everything from high school girlfriends (including the one who fancied a rubber bathing suit) to his 1992 battle with Ross Perot (“I can’t talk about it. … I think he cost me the election and I don’t like him, and other than that, I have nothing to say.”) In the film, Bush recalls his mother’s advice to never go “bragging on himself.” He has led his life by that example.
When he left the White House, he did not write the obligatory memoir. Instead, this traditionalist, having been raised in an era of letter-writing, not texting, decided instead to assemble his life in correspondence. Letters written to him and by him were put together chronologically. And those accounts, created in real time, became the record of his life, titled “All the Best.” They are unvarnished and offer a portrait of the man. Here’s an example: Bush had enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday. He’d postponed the start of his college education at Yale to serve his country and was, for a while, the Navy’s youngest aviator. On Sept. 2, 1944, Bush’s airplane was shot down off the island of Chichi Jima, in the Bonins, and he was rescued by the USS Finback.
The next day, he wrote this: “Dear Mother and Dad, “This will be the first letter you have gotten from me in a good long while. I wish I could tell you that as I wrote this I am feeling well and happy. Physically, I am OK, but I am troubled inside and with good cause.” He then proceeded to tell his parents what had happened on what he described as a “bombing hop,” including the loss of two colleagues. Bush was able to bail from the burning airplane and, while parachuting toward sea, saw the smoldering craft hit the water. “I’m afraid I was pretty much of a sissy about it cause I sat in my raft and sobbed a while,” he wrote. “My heart aches for the families of those two boys with me. “It’s a funny thing how much I thought about Bar during the whole experience.” “Much much love to you all, your ever devoted and loving son, Pop.”
It’s nice to see him receiving accolades while he is with us. Too often we verbalize appreciation only in eulogies. And perhaps the highest praise came from his son Jeb, the former governor of Florida, who raised the ire of conservatives recently when he said that both his dad and President Ronald Reagan “would have a hard time if you define the Republican Party — and I don’t — as having an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement, doesn’t allow for finding some common ground.” When word of Jeb Bush’s remarks caused a debate in the blogosphere, he tweeted: “My dad & Reagan sacrificed political points for good public policy.” Jeb’s right, of course.
In the HBO documentary, President Bush makes no apologies for having raised taxes, arguing that it was the right thing to do. That’s not a viewpoint that would be welcomed in an atmosphere where even a ratio of spending cuts to tax increases of 10-1 is viewed as unacceptable.
Happy Birthday, Mr. President. You were a president we didn’t have to train.