Opinion | Liddick: George H.W. Bush was the picture of a public servant
December 3, 2018
America suffered a loss last Friday. When it was discovered, sadly, some probably cheered; the deceased was not universally admired.
The loss was of our former President George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the United States. His death marks the passing of an era, drawing a bright line under the first period of what might be called the world's "American period."
Our paths crossed twice: once in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and again years later in a Hemispheric trade conference in Monterrey, Mexico. On both occasions I was a mid-level diplomat engaging with one of the powerful men on the planet. On both occasions the man devoted time and genuine interest to our conversation. He asked intelligent questions and was present for the answers. He didn't have time — but he made it, because the issue was important. That seems to have been the kind of man he was.
In many ways he epitomized the now-outmoded concept of a "public servant." Although from a politically powerful and well-connected family, he volunteered for naval service just after his 18th birthday in June 1942; less than a year later he was commissioned an ensign and was flying a torpedo-bomber in the Pacific Theater. In the course of 58 missions he was shot down once, earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals. After the war he married Barbara Walker, graduated from Yale and moved to Texas, where he founded Zapata Petroleum and developed new techniques and tools for oil extraction.
In 1966, Bush won a Congressional race to represent Houston — the first time a Republican had done so. He voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1968; although it was unpopular in his district, he won re-election. Following a loss in a Senate race, he was named US Ambassador to the United Nations; he was confirmed unanimously by the Senate and served two years, quitting to become chairman of the National Republican Committee. After President Nixon's resignation, Bush was made Envoy to China and then director of the Central Intelligence Agency, where he remained until 1977.
As Ronald Reagan's vice-president he played an outsized role in the administration's foreign policy at a time when it seemed America's role in the world was fading. From the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to civil wars in Central America and political unrest throughout Europe there was instability and conflict, much of it stemming from the death throes of America's longtime foe, the Soviet Union.
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This problem persisted as George H.W. Bush became president, culminating with the collapse of the USSR and its satellite governments in Eastern Europe. This caused violent revolutions, attempted coups, open warfare, breakaway regimes and enormous instability throughout the region. Fortunately, President Bush was not a man given to panic; we moved carefully and the world came through the crisis without catching fire. The same applied when Saddam Hussein decided he wanted to seize Kuwait. The president quickly assembled an overwhelming alliance to force the dictator back home, a goal achieved after 100 days of Desert Shield and 100 hours of Desert Storm.
But political fashion changes faster than a model in a Milan runway show, so in 1992 President Bush was defeated by Bill Clinton. Then he performed the greatest service of his career: he disappeared from public life. No carping about the unfairness of it all; no criticisms of his successor; no blaming others. The republic and its new leaders were left to work things out for themselves. In this he was typical of many of his generation and a standing rebuke to many of ours.
George H. W. Bush did not serve for self-aggrandizement; last year he said that although he was no longer president he still had his three most important offices: "husband, father and grandfather." This from a man with more accomplishments than his nearest million neighbors and who was a member of one of the world's most exclusive clubs. But his public undertakings; his offices; his harrowing decisions and even his mistakes; they were all done not to claw out advancement or profit, but from a sense of duty. It was what those who loved their country did — unflinchingly, quietly, with skill and with grace
Our republic needs more people like this — but where will we get them and why would they offer themselves? The sense of honor that propelled those like George Herbert Walker Bush is long gone, leached away by modern ennui and cynicism. Patriotism? Fat chance, when young people are taught their country was created by monstrous crimes and is perpetuated by lies and hatred. We have cut our own throats out of ignorance, spite, anger and envy; we will not see George Herbert Walker Bush's like again for a long while.
And those who remember him will feel the lack.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily.
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