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National Editorial & Columnists

Bush showed us the power of compassion

Historians will remember his leadership role in reshaping Europe

Upon hearing that George H.W. Bush passed away, our first thought turned not to his time in the Oval Office but to his daughter Robin. The second child and the elder daughter of George and Barbara Bush, Pauline Robinson Bush died of leukemia before her fourth birthday in 1953. George Bush would later wonder if, when he met her again in heaven, she would be a child or an adult.

If that was part of the mystery that has now been revealed to him, we can know with certainty that it was a reunion filled with a deep and abiding joy.

Referred to as “the quiet man” in a recent book of that title by his one-time chief of staff John H. Sununu, Bush was a leader the country turned to again and again in crisis. He led the Republican National Committee during the collapse of Richard Nixon’s presidency. He took the helm of the Central Intelligence Agency when it was at a low ebb. And he took up the reins as vice president in the Reagan administration at a time when the United States was in retreat abroad and retrenching economically at home.

As president, he saw in the collapse of the Soviet Union a rare opportunity to enable the spread of human liberty on a mass scale. When others might have wished him to go on a world victory tour celebrating the collapse of the evil empire, President Bush refused to gloat.

Instead, through diplomacy, by mentoring officials washing out of power in the former Soviet bloc, and through American foreign policy, he shepherded in a new world. In what was a stunning transition away from tyranny, much of Eastern Europe left communism on the ash heap of history, East and West Germany were peacefully reunited, and even Russia gained the opportunity to turn toward democracy.

None of that was foreordained. And all of it continues to rebound to the benefit of the United States in the grand struggle of liberty vs. tyranny. Consider that a decade after George H.W. Bush left office, Russia had yet to fully turn back toward the darkest impulses of its past and was therefore willing to actively help the United States enter Afghanistan so that our armed forces could topple the Taliban and hunt down al-Qaeda’s leaders. Consider too that as we now must confront Russian aggression abroad, we have a host of new Eastern European allies within NATO and within the European Union.

The example of leadership that Bush left is a mix of personal character, compassion and measured strength.

The future president – after becoming the American ambassador to China – had a famous exchange with Henry Kissinger, who was then at the height of his power and influence. Kissinger told Bush that personal diplomacy was inconsequential. “It doesn’t matter if they like you or not,” he said. Bush rejected the notion that nations made decisions based only on realpolitik calculations, and he made building personal relationships a hallmark of his tenure as ambassador and a mark of his leadership.

We can see that throughout his life Bush used personal diplomacy to reshape the arc of history. Internationally, historians will record the role the 41st president personally played in reshaping Europe. Historians also will record the influence he commanded in assembling an overwhelming coalition to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.

At home, his influence extended to stabilizing federal finances and reviving a flagging economy that dipped into recession after a long boom in the 1980s. He pushed for and signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act, legislation that helped reshape a cultural attitude toward people with disabilities. And he recognized the important role that private compassion plays in a free society, where private charitable endeavors can often marshal more resources more quickly and be more effective than public efforts.

What he called “A Thousand Points of Light” were, in fact, the private armies of compassion that have a long history in America, but decades into the federal War on Poverty were at risk of being discounted. His work helped steer corporate and private philanthropic efforts toward a wide range of social ills. And his sense of service extended past his time in the White House – including in recent decades raising aid for Haiti and other nations after natural disasters – and extended to inculcating an ethos of service in his family. He would see two of his sons, George W. Bush and Jeb Bush, elected governors of major states and one of his sons win two terms as president of the United States.

What George H.W. Bush left us was an example that in leadership, character and compassion can move the world. He understood the power of unlocking human creativity and the importance of improving the lives of others.

He also knew how to live life to its fullest. Late in life, he took to celebrating his birthday by going parachuting. Throughout much of his life he loved to take his speedboat off the coast of Maine near his home in Kennebunkport. More than one of his guests were a little unnerved at the speed at which he would roar along the coast.

Both are small examples of one of the bigger themes of his life not fully explored by historians. Bush was always willing to jump off and try something new. Whether it was leaving New England behind to make his way in West Texas or running for political office, embracing new policy ideas or believing that meaningful change was possible, George H.W. Bush was a catalyst.

Our parting thought about the 41st president comes to us from historian Jon Meacham. Once when he was approaching 90 years old, Bush was at his home in Kennebunkport when a massive storm rolled in. His chief of staff found him sitting outside watching the ocean as a full gale-force wind swirled around him. Why was he out in the mix? The former president simply said: “I don’t want to miss anything.”

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