A kinder and gentler nation. This was the aspiration George H.W. Bush had in mind for the United States throughout his presidency. Since he left office, the U.S. has tried, and failed in some respects, to pursue his lofty goal. But we trust that to try, and to keep trying, is enough to honor the wish he could not see completed. Bush died on Friday at 94 years old after a series of hospitalizations. He followed his wife, former first lady Barbara Bush, who died in April at 92. He will be buried on the grounds of his presidential library at Texas A&M University after he lays in state at the Capitol Rotunda until Wednesday morning. Americans will have a chance to pay their respects to the 41st president, his leadership during the 1990s, his legacy and his vision.
His most prominent roles were of national fame, but his first acts of service were of dire national importance. He began training as a naval aviator after the U.S. was thrust into war when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Bush completed 58 missions in total, earning his honorable place in history with the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Gold Stars — medals awarded for valor and heroism. He asked us to find the kinder and gentler solution to warfare he witnessed firsthand.
Going into the presidency, Bush inherited a world still chilled by the Cold War. But as the Soviet Union crumbled like the Berlin wall before it, he chose not to gloat or rush to Germany to prance on the ashes. He negotiated the Soviet withdrawal from Germany and a seat for the newly unified country at the table of NATO. Bush may not have ended the Cold War all on his own, but he certainly piloted the U.S. smoothly through a titanic shift in international power.
Notably, Bush did not make ham-handed threats at dangerous adversaries or be a scandalmonger in the press. He conducted foreign policy with restraint and wisdom, even if his handling of the massacre at Tiananmen Square in China was too restrained and not wise in that regard.
His accomplishments are too numerous to list, but he would later orchestrate the coalition that pushed Saddam Hussein out of Iraq and nurture a post-presidency dedicated to humanitarian causes.
But for all his accomplishment, Bush’s legacy is not without tarnish. The AIDS epidemic marred his presidency and nearly every position of public office he held. During his presidency, Magic Johnson, a member of Bush’s National Commission on AIDS, quit out of distaste for Bush’s inaction. Johnson wrote in a letter that Bush had “dropped the ball,” adding that he could not “in good conscience continue to serve on a commission whose important work is so utterly ignored by your Administration.” Bush’s legacy cannot, and will not, ever escape all that he could have done for the AIDS crisis or those innocent lives lost in the middle eastern conflicts he dedicated American firepower to.
Prior to being engulfed in politics, Bush was a generally modest man. His classmates in school nicknamed him “Have-Half” Bush because of his tendency to share what he had. We will remember him for his presidency and his personhood, but we still struggle to answer the question he posed in his 1992 State of the Union address.
As Bush once said: “America has always led by example. So, who among us will set the example? Which of our citizens will lead us in this next American century?”
We ought to ask ourselves that same question as we conduct our politics, vote for our leaders and move our country into the digital age — being caustic and divisive will only become easier and more instantaneous. We must be increasingly careful to honor Bush’s admonition. America can still shine as a beacon of honor and integrity, but it will take a leader who forges our kinder, gentler nation by deeds, not empty words.