There are a lot of lessons Americans — and today’s politicians — can take from the life of George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, who died Friday at 94.
Those who worked with him say that near the top of that list was how he conducted himself professionally and how he treated others, including political rivals.
“We all admired him so much, everyone who worked for him,” said former Ambassador R. Nicholas Burns, who was Bush’s director of Soviet affairs and served under Republican and Democratic presidents. “We admired his professionalism, his intellect; he was a listener; he was fair; he was someone with a very strong sense of right and wrong. He had clear integrity when you watched him.”
Gaining trust, building respect
Burns watched Bush manage those critical days and months after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain in the Soviet Union, marking the end of the Cold War. Bush had already established a strong relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader. Burns said he and others were advising Bush that he had to get to know Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev’s main rival for power.
“He decided he needed to talk to both of them,” Burns said, noting that each time he spoke to one, he told the other that he did and what they talked about. “He cultivated two very different Soviet leaders in the autumn of 1991. And it was really quite masterful. It was very impressive, especially in hindsight.”
All of Bush’s experience coming into the presidency — being the former vice president, CIA director during a difficult time for the agency and ambassador to the United Nations — prepared him to manage that very delicate time in world history. “He had a real sense of how to gain their trust and respect,” Burns noted.
Even Gorbachev praises Bush for how the U.S. president treated him then. “It was a time of great change, demanding great responsibility from everyone,” Gorbachev told the Interfax news agency after Bush’s death. “The result was the end of the Cold War and nuclear arms race.”
He added that he “deeply appreciated the attention, kindness and simplicity typical of George and Barbara Bush.”
Gorbachev’s translator in those days also told The Associated Press that Bush never “put Gorbachev on the spot” and was, in some ways, a more masterful politician in managing the relationship than President Ronald Reagan, the Republican who preceded Bush, because of his “balanced approach.”
“He was not one to rush and took everything into account,” Pavel Palazhchenko, the translator, said. “He was always very well-briefed,” and the two sides were able to look for “common ground.”
‘He was raised not to gloat’
Despite that success, Bush didn’t boast about it — and he lost re-election as the economy sagged.
“He was raised not to gloat, no matter how much it might have been tempting to gloat,” former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a retired general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Bush, told NPR.
Barbara Bush has recounted a story in interviews about how her husband’s mother said she believed her son was a great president, except for one thing – that he didn’t take enough credit. As it turns out, Bush credited his mother with instilling him with the very humility that didn’t allow him to take credit for accomplishments that have grown more appreciated with time.
According to one story, Bush, who became a starting first baseman on the Yale team, said that he once came home boasting of how he hit a home run, but his mother immediately asked whether the team won.
“I just want to get up into heaven, and I don’t get there by bragging on myself; my mother taught me that years ago,” Bush said during a fishing trip in full view of TV cameras.
Many note that is missing in today’s American leadership. Aaron David Miller, vice president and Middle East program director at the Wilson Center, remembers a time in 1982 when he was an analyst at the Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the State Department; he wrote a memo on Lebanon that was, in so many ways, questioning U.S. policy in the region in a turbulent time. The memo would have likely been in the back of a briefing book, but he got a call from the vice president, George H.W. Bush. Bush wanted to hear all about it and had lots of questions.
“He knew what he didn’t know and was in a hurry to find out,” Miller said, praising his curiosity and humility, qualities, he said, that are in short supply today. That 15-minute phone call told Miller a lot about Bush.
“He understood that if America wanted to fix the world,” Miller added, “you had to understand it first.”
Willie Horton ad
None of this is to say Bush was a perfect person. Eight women have accused him of inappropriate touching to varying degrees. And he was, at times, a partisan political player — he was chairman of the Republican National Committee during the Watergate scandal. And his 1988 presidential campaign ran a now-infamous ad against Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis that evoked black stereotypes and played on white fear. The Willie Horton ad will always be remembered for its dog whistle racism, especially in this era when white grievance and fear are invoked with a bullhorn.
But Bush didn’t make lifelong enemies of political rivals. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
“Despite the fact that he was a politician and did run tough campaigns to get elected,” Burns said, “he was very much someone who believed that politics could be noble, and you didn’t have to hate people, you didn’t have to have lifelong disputes.”
For example, Bush forged a close relationship with the man who defeated him for re-election, Bill Clinton. Despite the searing pain of his loss, Bush was anything but bitter toward his successor. He was gracious in his exit from the White House, penning a humble and supportive letter, noting that Clinton would be “our president” and that he was “rooting” for him. In their post-presidencies, Bush and Clinton teamed up and traveled the world for good causes, including raising money for disaster relief.
When his son, George W. Bush, won the presidency in that bitterly contested 2000 election, CNN reports, the 41st president called Democrat Al Gore, not to gloat, but to empathize.
Powell noted that Bush is admired today because of “the example he gave to the rest of us of character, of loyalty, of devotion, of humility and humbleness.”
Those qualities are all too often lacking in American life and punished in politics. And, as people look back on Bush’s life and legacy, the people who knew him said there were reasons that Bush specifically was able to succeed in managing something as delicate as the end of the Cold War. They cite those character traits and a life’s worth of experience that prepared him for that moment.
“When I think of George H.W. Bush,” Burns said, “I think of the quintessential president you could admire because of his character, his judgment, the respect that he showed people, the enormous personal integrity. I think of our situation now, and, you know, boy, we were so lucky to George Bush at that critical moment in history.”