The life of President George H.W. Bush in and of itself was remarkable – a Navy pilot and war hero who survived being shot down in WWII, successful businessman, Yale graduate, congressman from Texas, ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee, CIA director, special envoy to China, vice president and then president of the United States of America.
He was husband to Barbara for 73 years, a father of 6, including another president of the United States, George W. Bush. His biography seems like it would have to have spanned a dozen lifetimes. Yet he epitomized the best of commitment to family and public service within the span of 94 years.
As impressive as his own resume was, he perhaps is best known as the ultimate wingman, and not just during his service as a Navy pilot. Bush was a man who helped others shine and was always there with the assist to allow others to score – especially President Ronald Reagan, whom he served faithfully and fully, often behind the scenes. He was not only comfortable in his role as vice president but seemed to embrace it.
While working for President Reagan during his post-White House years, I watched President Bush and my boss interact on many occasions – in the Reagan’s Los Angeles office, at the Reagan residence, on the phone, and even in the White House. Their camaraderie and friendship were overwhelmingly evident. The two smiled broadly, laughed easily, and seemed to always pick up right where they had left off. They did so more as personal friends than as political partners.
I’ll never forget the first words I heard Bush utter in person. I was waiting for him to arrive in the reception area of President Reagan’s Los Angeles office. Together, looking out his 34th-floor office window, President Reagan and I watched the long presidential motorcade slowly wind around the streets of Century City en route to Fox Plaza.
Though it would have been much easier for the sitting president to just invite his predecessor to come visit with him at his hotel, ever the gentleman, President Bush chose to go to President Reagan’s office in an act of deference and respect.
A tall man – officially standing 6 feet 2 inches, but always seeming to be much taller – President Bush was a towering presence who entered the office with a warm, wide smile, striding briskly into the office, loudly shouting out, “Now where is my president?!”
I was struck by the fact that the sitting president of the United States, entering the office with his full staff and Secret Service entourage – clearly the most powerful man in the room (and arguably in the world!) – would refer to someone else in this manner.
But now, knowing George Bush as we all do, it is no surprise at all. He spoke truth and did so with humility. He would forever see Ronald Reagan as HIS president. And knew in many ways that the nation still did too.
Only a man with a strong sense of self could follow the landslide presidency of Ronald Reagan, picking up the torch that Reagan had lit and continuing to walk it forward in his own way, with his own style, yet in many ways still in the footsteps of his predecessor. He saw his good friend “Ron” as still – and always – HIS president. What remarkable respect and humility.
In 1989 the Berlin Wall came down and although Bush was president, as the world watched, most didn’t say, “Thank you President Bush for ending the Cold War.” Instead they turned a nostalgic and grateful eye toward Ronald Reagan, attributing the actions of the present primarily to his one bold statement of the past, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
President Bush didn’t take that personally, but instead celebrated the triumphant liberation of East Germans to once again unite with loved ones and pursue a future of freedom instead of oppression. Score – Reagan. Assist – Bush.
I watched with pride on January 11, 1993, as President Bush awarded his former boss with the highest honor that can be bestowed on an American citizen – the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In the White House that day President Bush honored President Reagan with the following words:
“Some men reflect their times. Ronald Reagan changed his times. And nowhere was that more true than abroad where he championed the holy grail of liberty. Mr. President, you helped make ours not only a safer but far better world in which to live. … Few people believe more in liberty’s inevitable triumph than Ronald Reagan. None was more a prophet in his time. … And I consider him my friend and mentor, and so he is. … Ronald Reagan didn’t just make the world believe in America; he made Americans believe in themselves. … He turned that winter of discontent into a springtime of possibility.”
They stood side by side, beaming with friendship and shared pride. Together they had accomplished much. Yet on that day the honor was meant to only go one way – to the 40th president, and the 41st president magnanimously ensured that.
You may recall that in 1980, the establishment Republicans didn’t want Ronald Reagan to be the candidate. They instead supported George H.W. Bush. Ultimately, of course, Reagan wound up with the nomination. But only a noble man with an overriding willingness to serve country over self, would leave the convention not with bitterness, but with a commitment to the man who had just surpassed him, and agree to serve him as he served America.
When Ronald Reagan passed away in 2004, Bush, choking back tears, uttered the following words during his National Cathedral eulogy. “As his vice president for eight years, I learned more from Ronald Reagan than from anyone I encountered in all my years of public life. I learned kindness; we all did. I also learned courage; the nation did. And then I learned decency; the whole world did. … The Good Book says, ‘humility goes before honor.’ And our friend had both, and who could not cherish such a man?”
Today, we use those same words to honor and celebrate the life and the passing of President George H.W. Bush – a man who served our 40th president and served our nation with both humility and honor. And we cherish him for it.