Ask about who the late George H.W. Bush was, and the average American will in all likelihood give you one of two answers: 1. He was the father of George W. Bush or 2. He was a U.S. President (never mind what he actually did as President, just that he was President at some point). Only a few surveyed will probably go so far as to tell you about his actual accomplishments.
That alone should frighten and unsettle any American patriot and should give us serious pause. But in a country that finds its citizens increasingly ignorant and indifferent to our history and rights, in a nation where 60% of Americanscannot identify who the U.S. fought in WWII (in a multiple choice format), where 40% cannot namejust one First Amendment right, and where just 81% of those below 45could not even pass a basic, multiple choice citizenship test, why does it continue to surprise us that we know disturbingly little about the man our nation has been mourning these past weeks? When 73% of Americansdon’t even know the cause of the Cold War, how do we to expect them to know what the last President from that era even did? As our country copes with the passing of its 41st President, we must truly make an effort to learn who he was and why he was so important. It is our duty to better understand both his accomplishments and shortcomings, his professional and personal life, his deeds and his inner compass. Only in understanding him can we truly feel the deep impact he has had on our country and world.
George H.W. Bush, who served as President from 1989 to 1993, is classified by too many as a sort of “fly-over” president, a kind of filler between the Reagan and Clinton years. But when looking back at Bush’s presidency, we find that it is one of tremendous achievements and milestones itself, deserving of our time and applause.
Of course, his most memorable feat was piloting the U.S. through the end of the Cold War, with some of the most important and crucial moments, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, occuring during his presidency and marking the victory of freedom around the globe. While the fall of Soviet communism was mostly nonviolent, that does not diminish the fact of just how precarious the situation was in that region and the entire globe. The fall of a dominant world superpower that helped define the 20th Century required the utmost diplomacy and caution to ensure a peaceful end to the Cold War, and Bush, being a former U.S. envoy to China and ambassador to the U.N., was uniquely qualified to help ensure just that. His pragmatic strategy of watching and waiting was criticizedby some of the media due to his supposed lack of enthusiasm for the fall of the Berlin Wall, but, in retrospect, Bush has now been rightfully lauded for doing so as to not give more reason for communist hardliners to oppose Soviet Premier Gorbachev, a reformer. Of course, ending the Cold War was a joint effort by millions upon millions, of which Bush was but one, but the Commander-In-Chief’s cool-headedness and skill during vital and stressful situations was indispensable in not only bringing the Soviet Union to an end and reunifying Germany, but also in negotiating landmark agreements on nuclear and chemical arms reduction.
And beyond that, his ability to lead the U.S. and an extensive group of allies to victory in the First Gulf War deserves a place in the history textbooks, too. After the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Bush, being the diplomat he was, brilliantly sought to unite a global coalition to defend Saudi Arabia and push back the Iraqis—an effort that was immensely successful and extraordinarily swift. And even though some criticizedthe President when he did not go beyond U.N. goals and invade Iraq itself, his fear that such an operation would result in a quagmire of increasing chaos and loss of life is now understood as both prudent and eerily prophetic considering the events of the 21st Century.
But these victories also hint at something beyond his political wisdom: the personal legacy he will have in Washington and beyond. Both before and after his recent passing, many have acknowledged and praised his thoughtful demeanor, emphasis on family, and calls for a “kinder, gentler nation.” Besides being referred to as “the last gentleman” by author Jon Meacham, historian David McCulloughreflected that Bush 41 “may come to represent…one of the last politicians who was able to differ with his opponent without becoming vindictive or letting personal dislike” get the best of him. Despite having a solidly blue House and Senate, Bush and other Republicans worked alongsideDemocrats to enact lasting legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Clean Air Act, even agreeing to a 1990 compromise budget bill. Such cooperation is an essential cornerstone of our nation, and Bush’s passing reminds us all of that truth.
Now, Bush was certainly not perfect—far from it. His tactics in the 1988 Presidential Campaign, his inadequate handling of the economic recession of the early 90s, and his failure in Somalia ensure that the Bush Administration will long remain controversial and by no means blameless in its record. It would be a disservice to our country and our history to forget these failures and not seek to learn from them.
Nevertheless, when reflecting on his record as a whole—no matter where you stand on the political spectrum—we all have a lot to be thankful for because of George H.W. Bush. From navigating us through the end of the Cold War and into a “New World Order” with the U.S. as the sole superpower to his calm, compassionate, and candid personality, his legacy is one worthy of hearty celebration and applause, but only if we can remember and appreciate it. It is our duty as we mourn George H.W. Bush to commit ourselves to learning more about him—the good and bad alike—and reminding ourselves, especially in a time of such divisive and polarized politics, of his desire for greater humility and civility in politics. If we fail to do this most basic task, his legacy will surely have passed along with him; we will have failed not only the man, but also his dream, our dream, and our country.