I met President George H. W. Bush, our 41st president, when he was a former president campaigning in Great Falls in 2000 for his son, then presidential candidate George W. Bush.
I introduced myself to the former president at the event at the Heritage Inn. While we posed for a photograph I told him I knew his son Neil from Bush’s 1988 campaign. Bush asked about my family. We chatted about Glacier National Park and our service in the Navy.
I’ve met and conversed with several presidents over the course of my life. From my brief but memorable encounter with Bush, his uniqueness among them was his naturally gracious amiability. Tall and genteel in bearing, he radiated good will and kindness that immediately put me at ease.
When I first learned of his passing it brought a tear to my eye. Former Vice President Dick Cheney described him as a “gentleman’s gentleman, you can’t be around and not be a better person for it.” I understand that.
The passing of President Bush 41 brought a detailed review of his many accomplishments, beginning with his record in World War II. He could have postponed, and perhaps even avoided military service, but instead enlisted at age 18, and became a combat pilot while still a teenager. His 58th mission was cut short when he was shot down, parachuting only after bombing his target.
He went on to successfully complete a remarkable succession of high-level responsibilities and missions that well qualified him to be America’s president, and respected leader of the free world.
While there are ardent advocates for President James K. Polk, it is increasingly the view of historians that George Herbert Walker Bush will emerge as our nation’s greatest one-term president.
Certainly his accomplishments as both a war and peacetime president were great, but I think the greater greatness of our 41st president was his characteristic for doing what he believed to be the responsible thing, regardless of the consequences to himself. Bush’s character projected kindness and gentleness of spirit, but also integrity and steely courage when either the actual or political guns were going off.
Bush was self-effacing and unselfish to the point to purposely avoiding talking about himself. Like his recently departed fellow traditional Republican John McCain, duty to country was not about himself, but causes and purposes greater than himself.
In keeping with this, our system of government has functioned best when, as Thomas Jefferson observed, it involves “give and take” among opposing factions. Compromise for a greater good seems almost quaint today, but Bush understood that simple requirement of a functional democracy, and acted accordingly.
Bush rose competently through the ranks at a time when both political parties were big tents consisting of liberals, conservatives and moderates, before we sorted into warring cultural and ideological camps. His goal was never to disrupt the institutions of government. It was, with thoughtfulness and care, to improve them. Today we are a better country because of his example.