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Kinder, gentler, always classy: Revisiting George H.W. Bush's presidency 25 years later

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Former President George H. W. Bush.Reuters

The president looked dapper in a sharp jacket and crisp white shirt and he had a head of hair that not only belied the fact that he shaved it last summer (in solidarity with a young cancer patient) but also put the sparser coifs of many of his younger cohorts to shame. He was surrounded by friends and family and hundreds of men and women who are proud to claim service to George H.W. Bush as part of their resume. And while the wheelchair may have been a nuisance, it certainly didn’t stop him from enjoying the music and the food and the panels and, as always, the people – young, old, familiar and not.

Last weekend’s gathering at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, to mark 25 years since he took office came amid a spate of “re-visioning” about our 41st president.

No doubt this amuses him in some respect – the whole “vision thing,” you know. And in many respects it is completely normal, to be taking another look at a president after enough time has passed to gain perspective on what he accomplished and what it meant.

On foreign policy Bush was the sure hand that finessed the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany and pulled together an unprecedented coalition of nations to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

What he did mattered, no doubt. But how he did it mattered, as well, and I think it is the “how” that is behind a lot of the new looks at his presidency, and at the man himself.

George H.W. Bush is rarely credited for his domestic agenda, but there were some pretty significant pieces of legislation passed under his watch: a landmark Clean Air Act that actually did what it was supposed to do and continues to do so today; the Americans With Disabilities Act that changed the way our cities and buildings look and opened a world of opportunity to those who had been shut out before; a Civil Rights Act he had the guts to veto in order to get it right before signing it into law.

And he did all this, mind you, with a Congress firmly in the hands of the Democrats, meaning the debates weren’t always pretty and nobody got exactly what they wanted. But the president reached out, and together they managed to get things done that made a difference. Then they spread the credit around and maybe even raised a martini or two at the White House when it was over.

There was the 1990 Budget Deal, for which he paid a steep political price, but which is generally acknowledged today for laying the groundwork that made the prosperity of the 1990s possible. George Bush knew it would be a costly move, but he did it because he thought it was the right thing to do for the country.

On foreign policy he was the sure hand that finessed the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany and pulled together an unprecedented coalition of nations to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. And while these outcomes may appear inevitable from today’s perspective – of course the Berlin Wall would come down, of course the Soviet Union would collapse without a major war, of course Saddam would be pushed out in less than 100 days – they could very well have turned out differently had a different man been in office.

And I think it is here that we come to the nub of what a lot of the “new looks” at our 41st president are all about: the man himself.

His accomplishments are significant and deserve recognition, but there does seem to be a renewed appreciation and even longing for who he was and how he conducted himself. As Dana Carvey is quoted above, that whole “kinder gentler” thing sure does sound kind of nice these days. And I think this is true regardless of your politics. That’s what “hope and change” was all about, after all: a longing for a different tone, a better way of doing things in our public life. And that desire remains, whether the politicians and public figures have gotten the message or not.

We’d all like to think a bit better of ourselves, and George Bush can teach us is that one of the easiest ways to do that is to think better of others.

There aren’t many 89-year-olds octogenarians going viral on a regular basis these days, but “41” is, and the delight that people seem to take in his activities – the skydiving, the crazy socks, his friendship with President Clinton, shaving his head – also speak to the characteristics we’d like to see more of, in ourselves and in others. A sense of duty, a sense of fun, fair play, humility. Old-fashioned values, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean never in fashion again.

At every event over the Bush 25 weekend, there was a group of students from the Bush School of Government and Public Service answering questions, offering directions and looking almost as natty as the president in their navy blue school blazers. They were smart and fun, of every creed, color and political persuasion, and they were not shy about letting you know they planned to have an impact and leave the world a better place than they found it.

They were also not shy when talking about “41.” Granted, they had a receptive audience – but they pointed to his life in public service as an example they aim to follow, his view of public service as a noble calling, of being part of something larger than yourself, of reaching out, of making a difference.

So while the rest of us rediscover and revise and perhaps re-appreciate what we know about George Herbert Walker Bush, a new generation is simply taking his lessons and his example and running with them.

Not corny. Not corny at all. In fact, it’s kind of nice.

Peggy Dooley is a former New York Bureau Chief for NewsCore. She was a researcher in the White House speechwriting office of President George H.W. Bush.