There is a lot about President George H.W. Bush that we will miss. And the current occupant of the White House puts into vivid relief the things that we will miss the most. Our president today couldn’t be more different from Bush. I hope the values that Bush brought to his distinguished career in public service won’t be lost. The qualities that defined Bush are timeless, and I think they will again reemerge in American politics. As a leader and as a human being, Bush will be a role model for a long, long time. But in many ways, he was the last of an era.
If there is such thing as a divine hand guiding us, then it is likely that God made Bush to be our president during such a critical time in American history. He was the transitional leader who skillfully led the United States into the post-Cold World era, and it was he who passed the baton to a new, post-World War II generation of presidents.
As a staff person in the Reagan White House, Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign and the Bush 41 White House, I also saw Bush cope with changes in American politics. Specifically, he came to power at the dawn of the “permanent campaign.” In today’s politics, the campaigning never ends. There is no hiatus for governing once elected.
Bush thought politics — or at least campaign politics — was a seasonal business, and that it was dirty. Dirty in the sense that it was unbecoming. Being a gentleman and turning the other cheek were sometimes impossible. Campaigns can require going negative, highlighting your opponent’s mistakes and flaws, and sometimes distorting your opponent’s positions or statements. Bush didn’t like any of it, and he wasn’t particularly good at it — so he resisted being in “campaign mode,” as he called it. But he was a realist, he was competitive and he wanted to win.
In 1988, I served as Lee Atwater’s deputy when he was then-Vice President Bush’s campaign manager. Bush knew he needed people like Atwater and Roger Ailes, but he thought they belonged on a shelf, only to be deployed as needed a few months before an election. He tried to keep them on a short leash. A lot of energy was expended during the 1988 campaign trying to sell Bush on the advertisements and other initiatives that would target his opponents and rile voters with pointed messages. To say the least, Bush was a gentleman and an adult. He did not like the gritty aspects of campaigns, and he did not like hardball campaign tactics that, at times, became mean-spirited and personal. I don’t think Bush ever reconciled his desire for a kinder, gentler nation with the style of the 1988 campaign that elected him.
Much will be written this week about Bush’s personal grace and dignity, and it should not go unnoticed that perhaps his last act of personal generosity is directed at the incumbent president. Bush would consider it unthinkable that a sitting president would be excluded from paying respects to a former president. But it says a lot about Bush that he would make certain that the sitting president would be included at his funeral even though he does not meet Bush standards as an appropriate steward of the presidency.
The President Bush whom I was privileged to observe would have no greater hope than perhaps that the gathering for his funeral would somehow make a contribution toward strengthening the presidency, and that his memory would remind us not only what qualities are important but exactly which character traits make the best presidents.