Why George H.W. Bush was the best man to ever be president


National Post, 3 December 2018

The 41st U.S. president was best at home. Not domestic policy, but at home — as a man of faith, family and fatherhood

He is remembered as a foreign policy president — vanquisher of Saddam in the first Gulf War, magnanimous steward at the end of the Cold War. Vast empires often disintegrate in upheavals and war; his steady hand kept the peace.

But George Herbert Walker Bush was best at home. Not domestic policy, but at home — as a man of faith, family and fatherhood. The election of his son George W. Bush made George H. W. Bush into something a “first father” — a grandfather to a nation that profoundly needed the witness of fathers and sons.

It turned out that in the 1980s, when the bright lights of stardom and celebrity shone around Bill Cosby as America’s Dad — complete with a bestselling book entitled “Fatherhood” — the real model of fatherhood was the slightly old-fashioned, not at all glamourous man serving as vice president.

When George H. W. Bush died on Friday night in Houston, seven months after his wife of 73 years, Barbara, he was remembered as a president, a war hero, the last of the greatest generation. True enough. But who he was, more than what he did, was more important.

Longtime political broadcaster Chris Wallace described him as “the greatest living American” and confessed that, like so many others — including Bill Clinton, the man who dealt him his most bitter political defeat — he “loved him.” No one thought that surprising, or its confession out of place.

Bush 41 — as his own family called him, to distinguish the 41st president from his son, the 43rd president — was a son of what would be now be called the 1 per cent. His grandfather and father were wealthy Wall Street financiers, the latter becoming a senator from Connecticut. Both served as presidents of the United States Golf Association, the kind of thing one would expect from an elite New England family that had a summer compound at Walker’s Point in Kennebunkport, Maine, the very land named after his family’s maternal side.

Bush was born wealthy and powerful — with a “silver foot in his mouth” as the irrepressible Ann Richards put it at the Democratic national convention in 1988. That line alone made her famous enough to get elected governor of Texas. But Bush got his revenge, when George W. defeated her in 1994, on his way to succeed Clinton in 2000.

Yet as a teenager Bush decided that he would not use his privilege to protect or promote himself. On his 18th birthday in 1942 he enlisted in the Navy, six months after Pearl Harbor. The youngest pilot in the Navy, he flew combat missions in the Pacific, getting shot down in September 1944. He was in the ocean for three hours before being rescued by an American sub. Two of his crewmates were killed on that mission.

Returning home a war hero, he married Barbara Pierce, while completing his degree at Yale. The secret of their long and happy marriage?

“Both of us have always been willing to go three-quarters of the way,” said Barbara. Half-way is a compromise; three-quarters is to sacrifice.

The decision to enlist was followed by another decision, in some sense more radical. Bush grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, one of the richest cities in the United States. He went to elite schools where students were often dropped off by chauffeur. But he decided to go west after graduation, turning down offers to join the Wall Street world of his father and grandfather.

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