Opinion: George H.W. Bush brought dignity to the highest office in the nation
George H.W. Bush considered Lou Gehrig his most influential heroes, which makes sense for a man as American as baseball itself.
Growing up in the 1920s and 30s, Bush, like many at that time, gravitated toward the dominance of the New York Yankees and their equally productive but oppositely dispositioned co-stars, Gehrig and Babe Ruth. The brash, loud-mouthed slugger Ruth distinctly contrasted with the mild-mannered, quiet, future-Hall-of- Famer Gehrig.
Much like his legendary hero, Bush possessed an immensely competitive spirit, but coupled that intensity with a quiet, soft-spoken style. He was the clear-thinking, well-reasoned, stable leader that America needed during a time of change and turmoil.
Through his life, Bush exemplified the dedication required of a public servant, the courage to make difficult, unpopular decisions and the dignity that his responsibility as president demanded.
Bush first felt the call to serve after high school as World War II raged. During his distinguished military career in the U.S. Navy, Bush became one of the youngest naval aviators in history, earning his wings before his 19th birthday. Bush flew 58 missions during World War II, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Gold Stars.
During one mission, his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire, and Bush was forced to ditch the aircraft into the ocean. Bush floated at sea for four hours until an American submarine noticed him. Showing his dedication to service, Bush received treatment and rehabilitated quickly, returning to combat as soon as he was physically able.
After retiring from the Navy as a lieutenant, Bush married his pre-war sweetheart, Barbara Pierce and enrolled at Yale University, where he studied economics. Bush joined the Yale baseball team as a left-handed first baseman and captained the team in 1948. Yale played in the first two College World Series with Bush starting at first base.
Upon graduation, Bush built an oil empire in West Texas, but his primary interest was politics. He was elected office in 1966, taking a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Bush would go on to serve as an international ambassador, director of the CIA, vice president to President Ronald Reagan and eventually as president in 1989, where he faced unprecedented levels of international change.
“Bush faced a dramatically changing world, as the Cold War ended after 40 bitter years, the Communist empire broke up, and the Berlin Wall fell,” the White House’s website states. “The Soviet Union ceased to exist; and reformist President Mikhail Gorbachev, whom Bush had supported, resigned.”
Bush’s administration saw the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, as new conflict emerged in the Middle East. When Iraq, under President Saddam Hussein, invaded Kuwait, Bush responded with almost half a million troops on the ground, defeating Iraq’s army in a 100-hour invasion, according to the White House.
Bush was less successful, and less popular, on the domestic front. Following the eight years of economic prosperity under Reagan, unemployment levels rose during Bush’s presidency. Infamously, Bush campaigned for the office under the promise to not raise the taxes of voters, declaring “read my lips, no new taxes.”
Facing economic difficulty, Bush did raise taxes, and his approval ratings never recovered from this broken promise.
Bush lost his 1992 reelection bid to an upstart governor from Arkansas — Bill Clinton. In this defeat, the dignity Bush displayed in his life showed through this disappointment as well. He left a letter for the new President Clinton on the Oval Office desk.
“I wish you happiness here,” Bush wrote. “You will be our president when you read this note. …Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”
Bush worked with Clinton on various endeavors, from backing Clinton on the North American Free Trade Agreement while Clinton was in office to raising money for Hurricane Katrina relief where both men found themselves in the unique club of former presidents of the United States.
“Few Americans have been — or will ever be — able to match President Bush’s record of service to the United States and the joy he took every day from it,” Clinton wrote about Bush. “I am profoundly grateful for every minute I spent with President Bush and will always hold our friendship as one of my life’s greatest gifts.”
Bush’s legacy invokes the spirit of bipartisanship, sacrifice and the belief that America can only thrive when it is committed to a “high moral principle,” dedicated to “make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world,” as Bush explained in his inaugural address.
In 1990, Bush delivered the commencement address at Liberty University, challenging the next generation to engage with the same commitment to service to which he dedicated his life.
“Remember, individually we can change a life,” Bush said. “Collectively we can change the world. Each of you can reject membership in a ‘Me’ generation, proving that yours is the ‘We’ generation, and show how a definition of a successful life must include serving others.”