The word just came in during the early hours of Saturday morning. George H.W. Bush, son of a senator, father of a president, 41st president of the United States, has died. But with him passes more than his soul. His life, long and honorable, was spent in service. His generation, our bravest, epitomized it. With him goes most of those once young men we have seen smiling from cockpits, chewing gum from tank turrets, and then raising their kids, us, in their comfortable homes made that way by their hard work and integrity.
What goes with him, as an individual, is simply the best of our fathers, the best of us.
He began life in high cotton, son of Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut. For those of us who prize preppy, he was the beau ideal. He could have stayed that way after Andover, got a cushy desk job in WWII, and after joined a prominent Manhattan merchant bank. But he didn’t. He went to war.
He graduated prep school on his 18th birthday and promptly enlisted. He got his ensign bars the same year, becoming the youngest pilot in the Navy. For some noblesse oblige is an outdated cliché. For that young aviator, it was his credo. We’ll see a lot of pictures this weekend of Bush in his WWII Navy blues, adorned with gold wings. Let me say it again, his Dad was a senator. He could have spent the war as a dog robber. Instead, like another well placed kid whose Dad had just been an ambassador, he volunteered for combat duty. Bush trained for carriers aboard the USS Sable and, when he finished the ten-month course, was assigned to Torpedo Squadron 51, VT-51, as a photographic officer.
The next year he was reassigned to USS San Jacinto. He was there for the scrape in the Philippine Sea, one of the biggest air battles of the war. Soon he was piloting a TBM Avenger that was running ops against Japanese installations on Chichijima in the Bonin Islands. On September 2, 1944, he was up and got nailed with withering anti-aircraft fire. His engine was hit and caught fire. Bush stayed on course and finished the mission, engine now blazing. His bombs hit their targets. He flew several miles away from the island and bailed out with another crewmember whose chute didn’t open. Bush was in the water for four hours before being picked up by USS Finback. He stayed on Finback a month, helping them rescue other downed flyers. In November he returned to San Jacinto.
In all, he flew 58 combat missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals. And all the time he was, in age, really just a kid. But in many other ways that mattered more, and still do, he served as a man. He always did.
After that, you know the story. If you didn’t you probably do now after the flood of obits you’ll see this weekend. Yale, Phi Beta Kappa, and a growing family. The path was set. The skids were greased if he wanted that. Nope. Moved to Texas and worked as a wildcatter in the wide open oil fields of the era.
How he must have looked, this Connecticut Yankee, this Philips Andover eastern dude, to those hard men of West Texas. But the war had cast off the perfumed scent of the drawing room. This kid might have a ready smile and good manners. But he was no dude.
He drove himself and business success followed. But George H.W. Bush knew he still had something left to give to his country. He ran for the House in 1966 from Houston and won, first Republican to represent Houston in Congress. He was re-elected in 1968. But prior to that he had courageously voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1968, unpopular in his district. When he ran for the Senate in 1970 against Lloyd Bentsen, Bentsen hit him for it. Bush knew this would happen, he knew Texas, but had voted for the bill, a good fair housing bill, anyway.
After the loss, a race President Nixon convinced him to take on, Nixon made him UN Ambassador. He was there for two years. Then, to paraphrase Captain Willard, for his sins they sent him to the RNC. This is 1973 and Watergate is picking up steam. So the Trickster gives Bush maybe the worst job in DC. But Poppy Bush knows duty. He defends Nixon until the president’s guilt was obvious, then formally requests Nixon resign for the good of the party. Ford comes into office and makes Bush Envoy to Red China. “Envoy,” at the time, because we had no official diplomatic relations with the Chicoms. As the U.S. continues to play the China card against the Soviets, Bush does very good work in Beijing. Ford rewards him with the directorship of the CIA.
He spends a year there trying to restore morale and operations after the Congress gutted Langley in the Church Committee hearings. To be frank, worse for CIA was to come soon under Carter. But Bush does his best and leaves when Carter gets in.
But by that point he knew he was running for president.
He enters the 1980 field against Ronald Reagan in the primaries. But nobody is going to beat the Gipper in 80 after four years of the petty ineffectual Jimmy Carter. Bush and others put up a good fight. Such a decent showing, after some weird footsie at the convention regarding Ford becoming kind of a co-president, that he gets the veep nod. As we might gloriously remember, Reagan-Bush beats the holy bejesus out of the cornpone cretin from Georgia and so begins the 80s.
Bush was your standard good vice president. He went to funerals, hung around the Senate when needed, went on foreign tours, talked the company line. They got re-elected against Mondale in 1984 in a landslide. As veeps are prone to do, Bush starts planning his second run for the big office.
Must admit, I worked for Jack Kemp in the 88 primaries; I couldn’t see how Bush could pull it off. The Bush team had been throwing out feelers to the press that presaged the “kindler gentler” talking points later made official. Oh, so we fine young savages of the right thought, Poppy Bush, that honorable preppy push toy, is gonna try and favorably compare himself to Reagan? Ha! We’ll wipe the floor with him. But I saw the actual campaign comparison working for Kemp at a GOP “beauty contest” (straw poll) at Orlando’s Peabody Hotel at the opening phase of the contest. Yup, we had the idealism (me once an idealist, imagine that…) and the cool young Lochnivar leading our charge. They had George Bush. But they also had something else. That something was Lee Atwater. I sat and watched dumbfounded and spellbound as our Chatty Kathy operation was outworked and outfought by the precision juggernaut of a campaign Atwater ran in Orlando. I can recall thinking that night: I guess this is what the French Army feels like.
Kemp punted after South Carolina and Bush went on to beat the unintentionally comical Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts in the general. Then came 1989.
Decades from now volumes will be written, surprised at least the initial definitive work hasn’t appeared yet, on that amazing year. Tiananmen Square, the Berlin Wall falls, the Panama operation, the Soviet Empire breaks up thus we win the forty-year Cold War. And in the American cockpit? The steady hand of George Bush. Aside from the minor issue of the Chicken Kiev speech, he would fly straight and true. Iraq then took center stage.
Not going to give you a long history lesson on that war. Others better than me are fast at it now, Saturday morning at 4 a.m. To be short: Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait. We go to the UN. They weirdly give us an okay to kick him out. Bush assembles a wide coalition to even include people like the Syrians. We go all in and the whole thing is over in about a week. Militarily, we hardly lose the crease in our pants.
Bush’s approval rating after that was in the stratosphere. But, as has long been said, Omnia enim et voluptas vana gloria: All glory is fleeting.
A minor recession not helping his chances, he gears up for his re-election run. But there is thunder on the populist right. In a move that still rumbles today in divisions inside the GOP, Pat Buchanan challenges the incumbent and actually beats him in the New Hampshire primary. It wasn’t that Bush was failing as a president. However, he had a certain kindly patrician air and, yes, also a bit of endearing goofiness that the rural and downhome base of the party had a hard time identifying with. Plus, with the end of the Cold War that kept them together, the GOP truce that had been in place between social conservatives and more establishment conservatives (sound familiar?) was torn asunder. Buchanan articulated the split in his Culture War speech at the GOP convention, a convention that nominated Bush.
Bush runs against Bill Clinton in the general election and would have beaten him. Except wacky billionaire Ross Perot taps into the Buchanan thing as an Independent and splits the GOP vote. The rest for George H.W. Bush is pretty much epilogue. And that brings us to tonight and mourning.
We can hope, no matter what their differences, people will, in the coming days, honor the exemplary service George H.W. Bush gave this nation. Some ghouls, like they did with another recently deceased Navy flyer, will see fit to vent their diseased spleens. Their crass low-rent behavior will contrast well with the genuine grace and decency of Bush.
We can also hope, as opposed to the aforementioned aviator’s funeral, that the Bush family itself does not give in to rancor at the president of the United States, who bested one of their own in the 2016 GOP primaries. If they do, it will debase them, as it debased John McCain’s family.
Perhaps, as may be fitting for the laconic nature of generations past, we can just inwardly render a much earned salute to the former president and LTJG and say: Well done, sailor. Your like, and that of your comrades, is something we sadly are not assured to see again.
But to have seen it at all, we as Americans are a better people.