George H.W. Bush was legendary for his thank-you notes. He wrote thousands of them, expressing appreciation for kindnesses large and small. When it came to his gratitude, no one was left behind.
In light of the consequential life Bush lived, lifting up this habit might seem to accentuate the trivial. After all, he served bravely in one war and, as president, led his country to victory in another. What’s the big deal about thank-you notes that are politically shrewd and reflect the old-fashioned habits of a well-bred patrician?
In fact, those missives of appreciation spoke to qualities that were fundamental to the 41st president of the United States. He was a much shrewder and tougher politician than we remember. He was a patrician, but of a very particular sort, a throwback to a time when elites felt a profound sense of public obligation. Being well-born entailed a commitment to duty and a requirement to live up to certain expectations.
And if his privilege gave him good reason to be a sunny optimist, he shared his cheerfulness with others. Not for him a habit all too common among the wealthy these days of expressing irritation and resentment when others fail to see them as exemplars of greatness and virtue.
For all these reasons, Bush represented a very different kind of Republicanism. He was a Burkean conservative who saw change and reform as necessary to the work of conserving what he believed to be a fundamentally good society. A fierce partisan when necessary, he refused to see cooperation with political adversaries as a form of ideological treason. As a product of the World War II generation, he did not dismiss government as merely a necessary evil.
He cared about deficits in fact and not just in his rhetoric. So he was willing to violate his politically opportunistic 1988 “No new taxes” pledge to get a responsible budget deal two years later.
Conservatives never forgave him, although his tax increase was smaller than the one Ronald Reagan signed. Conservatives were willing to forgive their hero almost anything; if the Gipper agreed to raise taxes, it must have been because he had no choice. The right never gave Bush any benefits of the doubt.
And it’s worth remembering that when Bush asked Congress to approve the military campaign to reverse Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, he did not seek a war vote during the run-up to the 1990 midterm elections. He waited until afterward, thus keeping the war decision out of electoral politics. He showed both resolve and restraint, resisting calls to send U.S. troops to Baghdad after Kuwait was freed from Hussein’s grip. It was a much-contested choice that looks better and better in retrospect.
Bush was no saint — but saints don’t win elections. His 1988 campaign against Democrat Michael Dukakis, then the Massachusetts governor, carried a taint of racism.
He attacked a Dukakis administration prison-furlough program, which was a legitimate thing to do. But the criticism was linked to the release of Willie Horton, an African American and convicted murderer who raped a white woman and stabbed her husband while on a weekend furlough. Years later, when Bush’s wily, engaging but also often ruthless campaign manager, Lee Atwater, was facing death from cancer, he apologized for having said he would “make Willie Horton [Dukakis’s] running mate.”
Bush always seemed to see campaigning as the unpleasant prelude to the noble work of governing. If a willingness to separate politics from governing was often a Bush strength, it could also be a weakness.
Nonetheless, our country would be better if elites were as public-spirited as Bush was and if conservatism reflected his Eisenhower style of balancing capitalism with public action, striving with compassion.
One day many years ago, I found myself talking back to the television set in a rather partisan way (for what, I can’t remember). I called my children over to say I didn’t approve of what I had just done and that it was not good that our politics had become so divisive.
And I told them of a president I had voted against but admired enormously for his stewardship of foreign policy and his basic decency. I hoped for a time when we did not have to become angry or fearful when the other side won an election. The man I was talking about was George H.W. Bush.