Former President George W. Bush’s biography of his father, 41: A Portrait of My Father, reminds us of the many significant accomplishments of our 41st president, George H.W. Bush, during his one term, from 1989 to 1993. These were accomplishments that many of us missed at the time, such as the fact that economy grew in the last four quarters of 1992, including more than 5 percent in the last quarter during the election based on the famous line from Bill Clinton’s campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
The fact that we missed them could be the son’s most important insight in this highly readable and loving narrative of his dad’s remarkable life and under-appreciated presidency.
To me, the most important — and perhaps least generally recognized — is Bush 41’s role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
As Bush 43 recounts in his book, when the Berlin Wall dramatically fell in November 1989 with no opposition from Gorbachev, his father “faced enormous pressure to celebrate. Democrats in Congress urged him to go to Berlin.”
“Journalists, eager for a dramatic story, demanded to know why he wasn’t showing more emotion. ‘Bushism is Reaganism minus the passion for freedom,’ one writer complained. … Dad refused to give in to the pressure. All his life, George Bush had been a humble man. He wasn’t trying to score points for himself; he only cared about the results. And he knew the best way to achieve results was to think about the situation from the other person’s perspective.”
When I read this, I couldn’t help thinking of my favorite character in my favorite novel, Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, and my favorite line, when Atticus tells his young daughter, Scout, that to get along with someone she needs to “climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
On Christmas Day 1991, Bush 43 writes, Gorbachev had signed the paperwork disbanding the Soviet Union. His last call was to President Bush.
“Thank you, George,” Gorbachev said, “I am saying good-bye and shaking your hands.”
Gorbachev had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, a year after the Berlin Wall had fallen peacefully. Perhaps if the Nobel Peace Prize Committee had known at the time about Bush 41’s crucial but virtually invisible role helping Gorbachev reach this result with dignity, he would have shared that prize.
This biography of Bush 41 also reminds us of the importance of personality and character in shaping presidential leadership. We know about the activist, energetic presidents such as Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson; the sunny, inspirational, “morning in America” style of Ronald Reagan; the “we can get it done” spirit Clinton employed to create 23 million jobs. What I learned from this book is that the essence of Bush 41’s presidential leadership abilities lay in the core lesson he taught his children by way of example: Avoid taking credit and do whatever you can to give, or at least share, credit with others.
Emblematic of this value system was Bush 41’s closing comments in November 1997 at the dedication of his presidential library at Texas A&M. Attending was the newly reelected Clinton, who had defeated him in 1992, along with former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. Bush thanked Clinton who, he said to knowing laughter, “saw to it that I have a wonderful private life.”
Then he said:
“Now that my political days are over, I can honestly say that the three most rewarding titles bestowed upon me are the three that I’ve got left — a husband, a father and a grand-dad. … I don’t know if Lou Gehrig, my great idol, said it first, but I do know that he said it best — today I feel like the luckiest person in the world.”
Yes, Lou Gehrig and Atticus Finch — those are the two people George Bush 41 reminds me of. Not bad. And this is why I believe that some day, history will judge this humble, self-effacing man as one of America’s most important presidents, if for no other reason than he helped achieve, as his son wrote, “one of the most stunning diplomatic achievements in history: a peaceful end to the Cold War.”
Lanny Davis, President Clinton’s Special Counsel from 1996-98, is a Washington D.C. attorney and crisis management specialist. He was a Yale College friend and fraternity brother of Bush 43 and they remain friends to this day. He also serves as Executive Vice President of LEVICK Communications.