In Memory of George H. W. Bush

No matter what you may think, you can’t prepare for the expected.

I stopped what I was doing and sat down at the computer when I heard President George H. W. Bush had passed. I’m a writer in part because of the knowledge I gained serving in his White House. It was, as they say, an honor and a privilege. But it was not just a line on a résumé. My life was shaped by one of the great American lives.

When George Bush was a child, he earned his first nickname. No, not “Poppy”; that would come a bit later. He was called “Have-Half.” Whatever he had he would share with his playmates and siblings. He was selfless, right from the start.

In the ruthless world of politics—which, as the fictional Mr. Dooley noted, “ain’t beanbag”—his shy generosity made him stand out. Who cared if others thought him an easy touch? He knew what it was like to eject from a fighter plane, land in a vast ocean, and bob about like bait, braced for certain death. A Navy submarine and the sailors aboard it saved his life. After that, how on earth could you hold grudges?

As a civilian, he stood tall but never looked down on others. He married Barbara, the love of his life, who said he was the first man she ever kissed. They raised five wonderful kids, and would have raised a sixth had leukemia not claimed her nascent life. He struck out on his own to Texas, away from the comfort afforded by wealthy and prominent parents, a worthy successor to the pioneers of yore. After building a prosperous life for his family, he entered politics.

While serving in Congress, George Bush earned other nicknames, some too vulgar to reprint here. It was a time when Texas was represented almost exclusively by Democrats, massive men with giant egos. Poppy again stood out. Not comfortable with what he saw in race relations, he voted for the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the first such bill to pass Congress. You can imagine some good ol’ boys drinking bourbon and saying, “Is this guy for real?”

He was. He served his country in myriad ways, from representing America in Communist China to rebuilding the CIA after it was picked apart by politicians. Presidents valued his loyalty, work ethic, and comportment. One future president chose him to be his running mate. In 1980, the ticket of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush won a world-changing election.

Predictably, the media would try to split them apart. They repeated with glee his crack about “voodoo economics.” They mocked his service by saying he had a “résumé, not a record.” They tried but failed to pin him to the Iran-contra affair. Some on the fringe Left floated conspiracy theories about dealing drugs. The keyboard warriors even developed a new nickname, one he and his family detested; Newsweek printed “Fighting the ‘Wimp Factor’” on its cover.

Through it all he kept his cool, and even threw a few knockout punches of his own. When fellow Texan Dan Rather attacked his honor on the evening news, Bush fired back. “How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York?” he said to Rather, whose face resembled a steer caught in the headlights.

More Than a Caretaker
Around this time I formed Students for Bush at Penn State University. I admired his loyalty to Reagan. My friends and I drove to New Hampshire and South Carolina to knock on doors for the candidate. This led to a job on the general election campaign in Washington D.C., where I managed a group of volunteers, including Tucker Carlson’s mother, who phoned radio stations to spread the word that Bush would be a much better president than Michael Dukakis.

In November, Bush beat Dukakis by seven million votes and 315 electoral votes, even winning the states of California and Illinois. Ann Richards called him “poor George” in her speech to the Democratic National Convention. Now she would call him “Mr. President.”

I joined the Bush White House in April 1989. My job, in those pre-Internet days, was to summarize the news overnight and give it to the president at 6:00 a.m. One morning I surprised the First Lady in her bathrobe as she walked her dog Millie. She was fully dressed from then on.

Pundits predicted a caretaker administration. So did conservatives. After all, President Reagan made America great again; what was left? A great deal.

President Bush managed the reunification of Germany and the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was accused by the media of being too laid-back. It was the end of the Cold War, they said. Why not brag a little? Because it was not in his nature, nor in America’s interest. Lives were saved because of his leadership.

Even I was angered at our cool response to the freedom movement in China. After the Communists ruthlessly cracked down on the student-led protests in Tiananmen Square, a photo surfaced of National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft toasting China’s leaders. I was young, idealistic and appalled.

But a greater test soon followed. When Saddam Hussein invaded and annexed Kuwait, President Bush stood firm. He drew a line in the sand and made it last. He imposed economic sanctions and created a worldwide coalition of freedom fighters. Later Bush went to war with Iraq. Saddam promised the “mother of all battles.” He lost. Fighter pilots flew 100,000 sorties to soften Iraq’s defenses. Over 500,000 troops were deployed. Kuwait was liberated after a one-hundred hour ground war.

I read countless media reports about how the “Vietnam Syndrome” would ensure an unwinnable war. President Bush’s leadership proved them wrong. A massive response saved American soldiers’ lives. I was proud to attend the military parade in Washington that summer.

President Bush was less celebrated for his domestic policies. But he appointed the nation’s first head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy which, along with mandatory minimum sentencing, began to turn the tide against the crack epidemic. He signed a profound civil rights bill, the Americans with Disabilities Act, against the wishes of some conservatives. He also introduced market forces to help end acid rain, the “climate change” of the 1990s.

Through it all, I learned what leadership was all about. Bush faced a hostile media, recalcitrant Democrats and wishy-washy Republicans. But he did what he set out to do.

“My opponent’s view of the world sees a long, slow decline for our country, an inevitable fall mandated by impersonal historical forces,” he said at the 1988 Republican National Convention. “But America is not in decline. America is a rising nation.”

For a man not given to boasting, George Herbert Walker Bush—a good man and a great leader—gave us much to be proud about.

Photo Credit: Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images

About John Herr

John K. Herr is a writer who served in the White House under President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush. He has written speeches and jokes for numerous governors and cabinet secretaries, including two appointed by President Trump. He lives in Pennsylvania.

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