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George H. W. Bush: Quiet dignity in a noisy time

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In late 2013, I returned to the US after a 13-month deployment to Afghanistan. On the plane ride home, I decided to fulfill an aspiration I’d sought for some time: to visit each of the 13 official presidential libraries and museums administered by the US National Archives. While on post-tour leave, I did so. One among them stood out.

As I write this, obituaries for George Herbert Walker Bush surge across airwaves and newsfeeds. Most will include the generic biography: Bush, a Yale graduate and World War Two Naval aviator, went on to become a Texas oilman, Republican congressman, UN ambassador, CIA director, envoy to China, vice president, and the 41st President of the United States. But beneath this impressive résumé of public service was a man devoted to his wife and family, integrity, and moderate politics. Unlike many of the other presidential museums, George H.W. Bush’s revealed the subtle character of a president often overshadowed by more blustery personalities.

Bush had already been admitted to Yale when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The son of Prescott Bush, a powerful banker, Bush easily could have ridden out the war on academic deferment. But he left Yale, taking a commission in the US military the day he turned 18. He soon became the youngest pilot in the Navy.

During a mission to bomb a radar station on an island south of Japan in September 1944, Bush’s plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire. One engine aflame, Bush refused to turn back, successfully completing his mission before dashing towards the Pacific. He parachuted into the ocean just before his plane crashed, killing his co-pilot and gunner. If not for lucky tides and nearby American aircraft that strafed approaching Japanese vessels, Bush would have been imprisoned and likely killed. Yet even after this traumatic event, he volunteered for additional missions, rescuing downed pilots as the US fleet neared mainland Japan.

Bush spoke little of his wartime heroics after returning home in 1945. He would live the rest of his life with a deep sense of remorse for his crewmates – the ever-present contemplations of a lone survivor. Four months after the crash, Bush married Barbara Pierce. They’d met while both were still in high school. She quickly became the center of his world – a point embodied in her ubiquitous presence throughout the Bush Museum.

This detail offers a significant point of contrast and reflection. Each Presidential Library and Museum is different – reflecting both the wishes of the President’s estate as well as those of the National Archives, the federal agency that oversees the collections. The Nixon Museum devotes sizable sections to his Chinese expedition; Clinton’s features a permanent exhibit on 1990s unemployment; and Truman’s devotes most of its space to the end of World War Two. Visitors see Nixon shaking Mao’s hand, Clinton before a chart displaying a budget surplus, and Truman at Potsdam. In traversing the country visiting these libraries, one develops a fair understanding for the staged versus the real. It is clear that Bush wished for his library and museum to reflect the important role his wife and family played throughout his life, not simply a portrait of Bush standing at the center of great events.

Bush’s post-World War Two biography reads like the résumé of a man possessed. He graduated Yale (Phi Beta Kappa) in 2.5 years after serving as Captain of the Baseball Team, entered the Houston oil business where be became a millionaire before 40, and won a Congressional seat in 1966. In Congress, Bush supported the Fair Housing Act and voted pro-choice. Later, he maintained distance from Nixon while others vaunted themselves by overlooking duplicity in exchange for Oval Office access. Due to his reputation for honesty and integrity, Bush was eventually appointed UN Ambassador, Envoy to China, and Director of the CIA.

One inescapable question is how Bush, arguably the most qualified of any American to ever run for president, didn’t win the office in 1981. Often forgotten today, it was Bush’s centrist conservatism that lost him the Republican primary in 1980. The divide between Bush and Reagan stemmed largely from the latter’s social policies, much of which the pro-choice Bush refused to embrace. Bush’s dignified service as Reagan’s Vice President is well known, as is his own post-Reagan presidency, highlighted most prominently by his victory in the Gulf War.

Bush famously lost in a three-way race to Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992. It was in the wake of this defeat that his character most clearly shone. Despite a hotly contested election, Bush and Clinton reunited during the funeral of Jordan’s King Hussein in 1999. Though divergent politically and personally, the two established a firm and authentic friendship, finding common ground in policy and collaborating in charitable pursuits. In the modern age of American political warfare, the Bush-Clinton entente seems sadly anomalous.

In Bush’s treatment of Clinton, as in his career, he was honest and moderate. Bush was a man guided not by blind ambition, greed, revenge, or party loyalty. What, then, inspired a man with such apparent humility to accomplish so much? Somewhat anti-climactically, the tour of the Bush Presidential Museum ends without offering a definitive answer to this question. Rather, the exhibit concludes in a room adorned with a large cushioned couch, television, and walled pictures. Family videos play across the screen, photos of Bush’s children and grandchildren peer affectionately behind framed glass alongside images of Barbara.

Upon exiting, visitors find a gravesite overlooking the museum complex. Here, Robin Bush, the couple’s second child, was interred after the museum’s construction. She died in infancy from Lukemia in 1953. Barbara Bush later recounted that her husband encountered his deepest depression in the aftermath of her passing. Bush spoke little of the experience. One is left to wonder what role the event played in his relationship with his family and, indeed, as a world leader. The clock on Bush’s life expired before it became clear what made him tick. What is clear is that we need more like him – sooner rather than later.

Lee Bagan is a PhD student in history. He recently enrolled at Stanford after service as a Green Beret.

Contact Lee at lbagan ‘at’ stanford.edu.