Editorial: Remembering George Bush

Op/Ed Staff

George H.W. Bush was, for practically no one, an easy man to admire. From the very beginning of his political career, he frustrated conservatives with his openness to liberalism and rejection of firm ideology. At the height of his influence, he infuriated liberals by his association with the Reagan-right. The privileged son of a powerful banker and senator for Connecticut, he was sneered at by many members of America’s middle and working classes. Everybody in the world, it seems, had one reason or another to hate the man.

Yet, in the wake of his death at the age of 94, our nation — with the exception of a few indecent extremists — looks back on the man and his life with universal appreciation. This apparent contradiction presents an opportunity to reconsider the things we really value in our leaders, and the ways Bush unexpectedly embodied those values.

Expected to attend Yale after his graduation from the prestigious Phillips Academy, Bush shocked his family by enlisting in the Navy on his 18th birthday. He was commissioned as an officer and became the youngest aviator in the U.S. Navy.

After a daring air raid on the Japanese installations on Chichijima, Lt.(jg) Bush — at 20 years old, the same age as the average college student today — flew a burning plane for miles until he could safely bail out, and waited for hours in the middle of the ocean until he was rescued. His comrades were killed and cannibalized by America’s enemies. In mature retrospect, he recognized this moment as the point at which he found real purpose in his life; God, he believed, had saved him for a reason.

That purpose, as the next 70 years of his life would reveal, was a peacetime translation of the same radical and heroic service to which he had devoted himself in war. This service began in the House of Representatives, where Congressman Bush broke with the bulk of his constituents in supporting civil rights legislation. He continuously angered his opponents to the left with his support of the war in Vietnam, and his allies on the right with his opposition to the draft. Later, as director of the CIA, vice president and president of the United States, Bush demonstrated the same rejection of rigid political definitions.

It is here that we believe the cause of his common admiration can be found: George Bush did not do what he thought was politically convenient or properly Republican — he did what he thought was right. Bush was guided not by any unfeeling ideology but by a strong and deeply personal moral compass. At times, it led him astray, but we cannot expect perfection of our leaders any more than we can expect it of ourselves. His character was defined by a moral courage at once remarkable and ordinary: day by day, for 94 years, to stand firmly for what he believed, regardless of who stood with him or who stood against.

Though Bush did not have a concrete vision of government, he certainly had one of America — defined in his 1988 speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination — as “a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.” For Bush, the greatness of our nation was not about the government or any party; it was about individual people coming together in recognition of common goals to make this nation, in a thousand little ways, a better place.

The bulk of responses from Americans of all political persuasions perfectly embody an old Christian adage which the late president held dear: “In crucial things, unity; in important things, diversity; in all things, generosity.” It is a fitting tribute to the man’s legacy that his death has brought together a thousand diverse points of light in homage to a light that shone as brightly as any, even when it did so alone — from the waters of the Pacific, to the floor of Congress, to the White House and beyond.