President George H.W. Bush, who died Friday, never liked the “L” word — legacy. His son former president George W. Bush said in a “60 Minutes” interview Sunday that his father thought “it was kind of self-serving. . . . And the other thing is, is that there’s — if you really think about it the notion of your contributions to the country will never be fully known until there’s a passage of time.”
Bush 41, who lived the longest of any president, actually had the benefit of seeing his legacy — Europe “whole and free” — play out. He saw the impact of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which he signed into law, and of the major revisions to the Clean Air Act he signed in 1990. And in an era of skyrocketing debt, his budget deal (with PAYGO rules requiring we pay for tax cuts and mandatory spending hikes) — politically devastating as it might have been — looks downright responsible.
As his long-time friend and former secretary of state James A. Baker III put it on “Meet the Press”: “Well, I think that no doubt that what he will be remembered as our most successful one-term president. And perhaps the most successful, one of the most successful presidents of all time. His presidency, while it was only four years was extraordinarily consequential.” He continued, “If you look at what happened in the world and the way he managed that, the way he managed the end of the Cold War so that it ended with a whimper and not with a bang, was really incredible. . . . The unification of Germany and peace as a member of NATO. The coalition he put together to reverse Iraq’s aggression in Kuwait. Ending the wars in Central America which had been the holy grail of both the left and the right.”
Appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” former vice president Dick Cheney, who served as Bush 41’s secretary of defense, called Bush 41 the “best desk officer” at the State Department in recognition of the depth of his understanding and the personal connections he maintained. He grasped the details but was also “a great boss because he’d basically give you your head” and let you do your job, Cheney said. In foreign policy, he plainly had his greatest successes.
What strikes one in retrospect, however, is just how good he was at the job of being president. As Colin Powell put it on ABC’s “This Week”:
He was always kind, he was always contained within himself. He didn’t let emotions get on top of him. And frankly, he was a — he was a product of his parents, who told him, you know, don’t show off. . . just always remember, you’re humble, you work for people, you serve people. So I think he was a perfect president. . . .
A life of quality, a life of honor, a life of honesty, a life of total concern for the American people. Everything he thought of, everything he did in public life, was always directed to helping the American people. He was a patriot; he demonstrated that in war, he demonstrated that in peace.
He was the most qualified person with respect to foreign policy ever to serve as president of the United States of America and he was able to demonstrate that for the four years of his service.
We forget Bush assembled one of the finest, scandal-free Cabinets in U.S. history. At one time or another Baker, Cheney (broadly admired before the Bush 43 years), William P. Barr, Richard Thornburgh, Jack Kemp, Louis Sullivan, Elizabeth Dole, Lamar Alexander, Andrew Card, Brent Scowcroft, Michael Boskin and Powell all served in Cabinet or senior-level positions. One shudders to consider how far the quality and character of senior administration officials has fallen during Bush 41’s lifetime. One cannot image Bush associating with, let alone, putting in positions of responsibility the likes of Stephen K. Bannon, Stephen Miller, Sarah Sanders or Scott Pruitt.
And now, to a person, Democrats and Republicans who served with him or now hold top spots in congressional leadership describe Bush as kind, honorable, gracious and humble. (That humility conditioned him to avoid taking a victory lap when the Berlin Wall came down, thereby avoiding Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s humiliation and easing the transition to the post-Cold War period.) That is the legacy. The best and only kind of legacy that matters.
This week both parties will honor him and celebrate his life. Funny how the great men who are passing (Bush 41, Sen. John McCain) are so reviled by today’s Republican Party. It speaks volumes about the latter.
You cannot help but make the comparison between Bush 41 and his administration, on the one hand, and, on the other, the current crew. The liars, braggarts and bullies who’ve populated this administration will have their legacy, too. None of their ludicrous lies can change history’s verdict; none of them will be heralded for leaving American democracy stronger than when they entered office. Neither in their personal dealings nor in their policy choices will they be seen as kind or considerate. They’ve torn up international agreements, frayed relationships (here and abroad) and deformed institutions. When it comes to history’s verdict, Democrats — and a great many Republicans (if the party still exists) — will enumerate their indictments, lies, horrid appointments, scandals and policy failures. They won’t be missed. It’s they not Bush 41 who should fear the “L” word.