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George H.W. Bush (1924-2018)

A president who was the hinge of American political history
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News just in that George H.W. Bush has died.  Whatever you thought of his politics, he was a deeply admirable gentleman. Karen Tumulty’s obituary for him in the Washington Post says it all right here:

Although Mr. Bush served as president three decades ago, his values and ethic seem centuries removed from today’s acrid political culture. His currency of personal connection was the handwritten letter — not the social media blast.

I was never much of a fan of President Bush the Elder’s politics, especially the New World Order stuff, but his modesty and dignity always struck a chord. More:

No president before had arrived with his breadth of experience: decorated Navy pilot, successful oil executive, congressman, United Nations delegate, Republican Party chairman, envoy to Beijing, director of Central Intelligence.

Over the course of a single term that began on Jan. 20, 1989, Mr. Bush found himself at the helm of the world’s only remaining superpower. The Berlin Wall fell; the Soviet Union ceased to exist; the communist bloc in Eastern Europe broke up; the Cold War ended.

His firm, restrained diplomatic sense helped assure the harmony and peace with which these world-shaking events played out, one after the other.

Do you remember living through those years? Things could have gone much worse than they did for the world. President Bush’s steadiness was exactly what we needed. It wasn’t quite so clear back then, when his verbal maladroitness and Oxford-shirt Establishmentarianism made him easy to caricature.

This is interesting too:

That he was perceived as lacking in grit was another irony in the life of Mr. Bush. His was a character that had been forged by trial. He was an exemplary story of a generation whose youth was cut short by the Great Depression and World War II.

Talk about another world! We could stand a lot more of that Yankee modesty, courtesy, and steadfastness in our leaders. Read:

Prescott Bush wanted his son to go right to Yale upon graduation from Andover. But Mr. Bush said his father had also insisted that privilege carried a responsibility to “put something back in, do something, help others.”

His own time to serve came on his 18th birthday, when he enlisted in the Navy; within a year, he received his wings and became one of the youngest pilots in the service.

Sent to the Pacific, he flew torpedo bombers off the aircraft carrier San Jacinto. On Sept. 2, 1944, his plane was hit by Japanese ground fire during a bombing run on Chichi Jima in the Bonin Islands in the western Pacific. He pressed his attack even though his plane was aflame.

Mr. Bush bailed out over the ocean and was rescued by a submarine. His two crewmen were killed. The future president was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Tumulty’s obituary — I hope you’ll read the whole thing — makes a point that can’t be overstated: that you can’t appreciate what George H.W. Bush achieved in managing the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet empire without understanding the geopolitics of the previous 40 years.

(The New York Times‘ obit is really good too, with even more details.)

G.H.W. Bush was literally the hinge of American presidential history. Think about it: he was a Rockefeller Republican who became the vice president of the man who revolutionized the GOP, and American politics of an entire era. He fathered a president who led the country into a disastrous war — in part, it was said uncharitably by some, to show up his old man, who left Saddam Hussein in power — and who presided over the ruin of Republican credibility on foreign and economic policy, which had been the GOP’s strong suit since Reagan.

Donald Trump decisively ended the Bush family’s Republican Party, for better and for worse. In mourning the passing of George H.W. Bush, some will note also mourn the end of the GOP they knew and loved. Many, like me, will not, even if they have strong reservations about Trump’s GOP. But I think — or at least I hope — that all of us will mourn the passing of this last president of the Greatest Generation, a man who was the incarnation of a nobler, more dignified America that no longer exists. R.I.P.

UPDATE: Joshua Treviño says something smart, and says it well. Excerpt:

Here is the one thing you need to know about him, among all the things of his crowded and extraordinary life: his most enduring legacy is the war that did not happen. It is a commonplace that his predecessor in the Presidency defeated the Soviet Union, and there is truth to it, but it is not the whole story. President George H.W. Bush was the man who managed, deftly and successfully, the Western portion of the implosion of the Soviet empire. It was a perilous passage — the abrupt collapse of an imperium and a pillar of world order — that would have almost certainly produced great-power war under nearly any other circumstance. It did not largely because of the men who were President at the moment: President, that is, of both the failing USSR and the ascending United States.

Think back to the revolutions of 1989, and the triumphant scenes of Europe liberated at last, of the Second World War reaching its final conclusion after six long decades. Think back to the realization that Soviet Communism, the specter haunting free men throughout most of the century, was in its death throes. Then think back to what you didn’t see: American triumphalism in Europe, the imposition of terms, the march of Western armies to the Oder and Vistula, the spiking of the ball.

President George H.W. Bush, unnoticed and uncredited by his nation, steered a victorious America — flush in the defeat of its sixth empire in just over seventy years, standing upon the precipice of global hyperpower — with restraint, prudence, and even modesty in its moment of triumph. It was an exemplary achievement not just for the virtues inherent in those qualities. It was an exemplary achievement because of the people who lived.

Under nearly anyone else, in nearly any other era, the generation of 1989 would have been sacrificed to wars of succession, wars of revision, and wars of revenge. Under George H.W. Bush, these men and women lived, and their children are with us today.

It is a curious thing to have as the most enduring achievement a thing that did not happen. The former President understood it. The American people did not. They still don’t.



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