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The long and honorable service of George H.W. Bush

December 3, 2018

George Herbert Walker Bush, 41st president of the United States, died Friday after reaching the age of 94, after surviving his wife, Barbara, by just seven months, and after a peaceful farewell to family and friends. As are all deaths, his was about the human being, not about the public figure.

Now, appropriately, come symbols and words of respect for the world leader, the war hero, the humanitarian, the Cold Warrior, and the head of a family that looked to be a Republican dynasty.

In a speech at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 2002, Mr. Bush told cadets what he hoped would be said when historians evaluated his presidency: that he respected the office and the flag and served with honor. As he goes to his rest, that assessment seems assured, not only because of the way he conducted himself in the offices he held but also because of his actions as a man.

Mr. Bush served his country for so long and in so many roles that Americans of different generations know him best for different reasons. He was 69 years old when he left the presidency, but for 25 years longer he continued a public life of humanitarian service to victims of the tsunami of 2004, the hurricanes of 2017, and other disasters.

To the remnant of World War II warriors, the “Greatest Generation,” George H.W. Bush has always been one of their own. The son of a U.S. senator from Connecticut, Prescott Bush, he was a child of privilege but put college on hold to enlist. As one of the Navy’s youngest pilots, he was shot down and rescued at sea.

Connecticut was his home while he attended Yale University, and then he and Barbara started out modestly in their new life in Texas, no doubt with the assurance so many had in the Eisenhower years that the United States was the savior of the world, that things were about to boom for the nation that had mobilized its factories and farms as well as its military. For Mr. Bush, that was a fact. By 1964, not yet 40, he was a millionaire, and by 1967 he was in Congress and soon to make himself a national figure as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee during the Watergate investigations, chief liaison to China and director of the CIA.

He served as the 43rd vice president for eight years under Ronald Reagan, and with his own presidency inherited the task of overseeing the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union. To the generation that grew up during the Cold War, the dramatic change in global politics characterized his tenure.

Echoes of Mr. Bush’s policies still reverberate: He signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, changing the lives of millions and the way Americans design public spaces. NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement recently re-negotiated with Mexico and Canada, began with him. In 1990 he responded to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait by forming a coalition that quickly fought what would later be called “the first” Gulf War. 

While he was campaigning and during his presidency, Mr. Bush took a lot of public ribbing for the way he sometimes wore his heart on his sleeve. But he had the last laugh for saying in his 1989 inaugural address that Americans who volunteered to help others would be recognized as “a thousand points of light.” By 2013, 5,000 had been recognized, and by that time President Barack Obama had given Mr. Bush the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor for contributions to society.

No one is perfect, and a life in politics rarely makes a saint. George H.W. Bush may have used his slow smile and quick wit to convince us that he, and we, could form “a kinder, gentler nation,” as he pledged. But he did not quit being a humanitarian before, during or after the White House. No one had to tell him, ever, to show compassion.

For that he deserves to be remembered as he wished: a man who respected the flag and the office and served with honor. He was a point of light.

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