George H.W. Bush: President As Servant Leader

Dec 15th, 2018 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

George Herbert Walker Bush (1924-2018) died on Friday evening, 30 November 2018.  He had a form of Parkinson’s disease that forced him to use a wheelchair or motorized scooter in recent years.  He served as president from 1989 to 1993, capping a career of more than 40 years of public service.  A decorated Navy pilot (compiling 126 carrier landings and 58 missions) who was shot down in the Pacific in 1944, he was the last of the World War II generation to serve as president.  President Bush was a skilled negotiator and diplomat and, as president, helped end the Cold War and the threat of nuclear engagement with a careful handling of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the liberation of Eastern Europe.  James A. Baker III, former Secretary of State, said of President Bush:  “[He] was the best one term president the country has ever had, and one of the most underrated presidents of all time.  I think history is going to treat him well.”

Here are a few of the salient events of his life of service and dedication to his country:

  • In 1942, he joined the Navy on his 18th birthday, becoming a torpedo bomber pilot in World War II. His plane was shot down by the Japanese and he was rescued at sea.
  • In 1966, he was elected to the House of Representatives.
  • In 1971, President Nixon appointed him United Nations ambassador.
  • In 1972, President Nixon named him chairman of the Republican National Committee. As the Watergate scandal broke, Bush joined the chorus asking Nixon to resign.
  • In 1974, President Ford named him envoy to China.
  • In 1976, he was named CIA director, restoring the morale to that strategic agency.
  • In 1980, he was elected Vice President of the US with Reagan as President.
  • In 1988, he was elected President of the United States.
  • In 1991, he built an international coalition to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in the Frist Gulf War.

Why did I call him a servant leader as president?  Consider these reflections on Bush’s life, as reflected in the eulogies at his funeral:


  • In the first of four eulogies, Bush biographer Jon Meacham summed up the standards Bush had set for himself: “His life code, as he said, was, ‘Tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Be strong. Do your best. Try hard. Forgive. Stay the course.’ And that was, and is, the most American of creeds.”
  • Brian Mulroney, the former prime minister of Canada, speaking of the respect with which other world leaders regarded Bush, and the kinship they felt for him: “There’s a word for this. It’s called leadership. Leadership. Now, let me tell you that when George Bush was president of the United States of America, every single head of government in the world knew that they were dealing with a gentleman, a genuine leader, one who was distinguished, resolute and brave.”
  • Alan Simpson, the salty ex-senator from Wyoming, offered this: “He was a man of such great humility. Those who traveled the high road of humility in Washington, D.C., are not bothered by heavy traffic.”
  • When his son, the 43rd president of the United States, gave the final and most emotional eulogy, he spoke about the human qualities all good fathers share. “He was firm in his principles and supportive as we began to seek our own ways. He encouraged and comforted, but never steered. We tested his patience. I know I did. But he always responded with the great gift of unconditional love.”


Columnist Peggy Noonan makes this insightful observation about Bush’s funeral:  “Its unembarrassed religiosity and warmly asserted Christianity were beautiful and refreshing.  The burial rite was from the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer, and it was great and moving moment when the presiding bishop, Rev. Bruce Curry, met the flag-draped coffin at the Great West Doors and said:  ‘With faith in Jesus Christ, we receive the body of our brother George Bush for burial.’  Such simple, humble, egalitarian words.”

Perhaps the most least understood aspect of Bush’s presidency was how he skillfully managed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the unification of Germany.  As President, Bush faced poignant questions about how to handle the end of the Cold War.  As Josef Joffee, Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, argues, the questions Bush faced were:  “How to soften the blow to the loser of the Cold War?  How to keep the USSR from lashing out in desperation?  At that point, there were still 400,000 Soviet troops in East Germany alone, plus thousands of tactical nuclear weapons deployed throughout Eastern Europe.  Soviet shock divisions were ensconced some 20 miles from Hamburg . . .  In Gorbachev’s Russia, Bush had to deal with a failing state married to a failing economy.  Lesser leaders might have crowed, kicking the stumbling giant as he buckled.  Instead, Bush let him down gently.  The US dispatched food and economic aid to the Soviet Union . . .  It was high-stakes diplomacy at its best.  The Bush team knew when to push and when to stop, when to flatter and when to cajole.  Paying tribute to Bush, Mr. Gorbachev hailed his ‘contribution to a historic achievement.’ The German foreign minister eulogized Bush as ‘a great statement and friend of Germany.’”  Indeed, Angela Merkel, who attended Bush’s funeral, said, that without Bush, she “would hardly be standing here.”  She had grown up in East Germany and she was with Chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1991 as he and Bush negotiated the unification of Germany and planned how to handle Russia.  Merkel recounts how in that 1991 meeting in the Oval Office, President Bush “treated th[is] young woman with great personal and professional respect.  And so there she was [at the funeral], because history is human and how you treat people matters.”  Bush, more than anyone else, is the father of the modern, unified Germany.  He insisted that Germany remain in NATO and that it be unified.  Gorbachev relented and the birth of a new European order, rooted in a unified Germany and a delicate balance of power, had begun.

One final comment:  When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, President Bush declared simply that “this will not stand.”  He and his Secretary of State, James Baker, then put together an international coalition to drive Saddam out of Kuwait.  When  you go back and examine the language Bush and Baker used to justify the First Gulf War, they followed the stipulations of a just war:  a just cause, a clearly articulated goal, proportionate means, war as the last resort, a reasonable chance of success and noncombatant immunity.   With Saddam out of Kuwait, Bush refused to go on to Baghdad and topple Saddam.  The intent of the war had been achieved.  He wanted to set a precedent about how the world would deal with aggression.  He was not seeking to transform the entire Middle East.  Bush demonstrated how the tenet so the just war tradition can be beneficial in taking the US to war.

George H.W. Bush was hardly a perfect man; he himself acknowledged that many times.  His humility and his sense of public duty and service made him a model servant-leader-president.  As Peggy Noonan summarized:  “ This was a good man, a brave one who proved himself solid when major edifices of the world were melting away.  He was kind and gentle.  And he loved America.  We were lucky to have him—the steady one, the sensitive one.  The diplomat.”

See Karen Tumulty in the Washington Post (5 December 2019); Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal (8-9 December 2019); and Josef Joffe n the Wall Street Journal (4 December 2019).

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