The passing of former President George Herbert Walker Bush reminds me of what a uniquely American life he led. Part of what has rightly been called “the greatest generation” by author David Halberstam, George Bush grew up in a privileged family – – – his father Prescott was a wealthy businessman who later served two terms in the United States Senate from Connecticut. Bush served his country during World War II and was the last President of the United States who served in the most violent global conflict of our times.
At eighteen years old, George Bush was one the youngest naval pilots to fight in World War II. Like so many of his generation, George Bush was a genuine military hero. While flying a mission over the Bonin Islands, Japanese flak caused his Gruman bomber to catch fire and the young pilot was able to keep the plane airborne to reach open water. Two of the crewmen died after bailing out with Bush, who was rescued by a submarine. George Bush was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross as well as three other Air Medals.
Bush left his Connecticut home to move to Texas with his wife Barbara and made his own fortune in the oil business. Barbara and George Bush experienced personal tragedy in the loss of their four year-old daughter to leukemia. One testament to George Bush’s character is from his own family, as he was truly adored by his children and grandchildren. Another is from those who knew the former president well. A thoughtful, kind and generous man, George Bush, like the man he served for eight years as vice president, Ronald Reagan, was known for his innumerable hand-written notes to friends, associates and many whom he did not know personally.
George Bush was a pioneer for a budding Republican party in Texas, running for the U. S. Senate kin 1964, the year Texan Lyndon Johnson won a landslide victory. Bush was elected to Congress from Houston and served two terms before losing another Senate race in 1970. George Bush served the American people in several capacities; CIA Director and Ambassador to the United Nations. Bush served as Ambassador to China under President Gerald Ford before later being appointed as Director of the CIA.
Running for the Republican nomination for president in 1980, Bush was selected by eventual nominee Ronald Reagan to run with him against Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. George Bush was the epitome of a vice president, capable and loyal to his chief. Many thought Bush was elected to serve Ronald Reagan’s third term and his presidency was largely driven by foreign policy issues.
Although a modest man, George Bush was a tough competitor and capable of running hard campaigns. Yet Bush never took himself too seriously, once inviting comedian Dana Carvey to poke fun at him. Never as articulate as his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, it was easy to forget George Bush was an honors graduate of Yale University. Unlike most politicians, the subject George Bush found the most difficult to express in spoken words always involved himself.
Bush knew his own limitations, writing in his diary, “Some wanted me to deliver fireside chats to explain things, as Franklin D. Roosevelt had done. I am not good at that.”
George Bush lost his bid for a second term in 1992 and once again, he set the example for the role of former presidents. Living in Texas with his beloved wife Barbara, George Bush was a model of decorum in statesmanship. Gracious to his successor, Bill Clinton, George Bush saw his son and namesake elected president in 2000 as well as another son, Jeb, elected governor of Florida. Bush also lived to see his grandson, George P. Bush, elected to statewide office in his adopted home state of Texas.
George Bush came from a generation which did not get to enjoy the traditional benefits of being young; the depths of the Great Depression and the advent of World War II cut that short. While barely out of adolescence, George Bush was flying bomber missions in the Pacific theatre of the war.
Again, like so many of his generation, he married the girl of his dreams. Barbara Bush remembered, “I thought he was the most beautiful creature I had ever laid eyes on. I couldn’t even breathe when he was in the room.” Mrs. Bush said, “I married the first man I ever kissed.”
With wealth, came responsibility; George Bush never forgot his father’s admonition to “put something back in, do something, help others.” George Bush lived that adage for the length and breadth of his long life.
It was not surprising that George Bush died so closely following the loss of his wife, nor was it surprising he lived his life so well. As with so many of that greatest generation, George Bush was both an inspiration and example in living such a uniquely American life. George Bush’s entire life is a summary of why America is still the greatest nation on earth.