George H.W. Bush famously acknowledged that he didn't have "the vision thing," but that wasn't entirely true. He had a vision of public service, of country above all, of how to govern at home and conduct affairs overseas. In office, he was a pragmatist and a problem solver who held to first principles about sound stewardship. He was a conservative in the traditional sense, understanding of change yet careful in response, looking to find or build consensus where he could.
His death on Friday at age 94 has prompted many reminiscences and evaluations of his long and successful political career. That underestimated vision is worth keeping in mind. During his presidency, especially, it served the country well.
Part of taking public service seriously involves preparation. Few have entered the White House better equipped. A Navy fighter pilot in World War II, Bush knew the realities of war. He spent time in the U.S. House, as the head of the Republican Party, CIA director, ambassador to China and the United Nations. For eight years, he served Ronald Reagan as vice president.
Bush learned to value the knowledge, experience and judgment of others.
His four years in the White House often have been underestimated. They were deftly handled on many fronts. Consider the coalition that successfully reversed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Bush and his aides recognized the necessary limits, choosing not to pursue the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Bush didn't gloat at the fall of the Soviet Union. He helped to manage the transition from the Cold War, most notably, in bringing a unified Germany into NATO. The Madrid initiative set the path to the Oslo agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.
On the domestic front, Bush showed no small amount of political bravery in reaching a budget deal with Democrats in Congress. He broke a campaign pledge to the dismay of many fellow Republicans. Yet he did so in the best interests of the country, the package of spending cuts and tax increases securing an improved financial position that would contribute to the strong economy of the 1990s.
Bush worked with lawmakers to renew the Clean Air Act and enact the Americans with Disabilities Act, two important advances in improving lives. He knew to put together a strong team, in particular, James Baker as secretary of state, Brent Scowcroft as national security adviser and William Reilly as the EPA administrator.
All of this isn't to overlook the darker side. In 1988, Bush ran a brutal campaign against his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, playing the race card in ads that made Willie Horton a household name. He talked about "campaign mode" as an unavoidable descent to gain office. Out of expedience, he opposed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, siding with Barry Goldwater. Then, in 1968, he supported the similarly landmark Fair Housing Act.
That support goes to something essential about George H.W. Bush. The roughhousing of the campaign was a tool to reach the main chance — actual governing. Once there, the obligation was to serve honorably. That meant crafting compromises to make a measure of progress. It meant honoring the idea of public service, that serving in government is about something larger, requiring substantial degrees of grace and thoughtfulness. He didn't always succeed. He made his share of mistakes. Still, his vision was right, his approach sorely missing today and well worth emulating.
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