History Will Remember George H.W. Bush Kindly

The United States owes a great debt to its 41st president.

I met Bush for the first time at a Sunday pancake breakfast in 1992 hosted by New Hampshire Gov. Judd Gregg and former Gov. Hugh Gregg during that state’s primary. (I was a volunteer in the state for Bush’s re-election campaign.) At the breakfast, I was wearing a tie with all of the flags of the world on it. Bush noticed it right away and said, “I have that exact same tie.” For my 20-year-old self, that was worth all the stamp-licking, pamphleteering, and sleeping on couches, and I drove with the famous “Annoy the Media, Re-elect Bush” bumper sticker on my car throughout the summer and autumn.

I also did an internship at the Bush White House in the fall of 1992. When Bush lost in November to Bill Clinton, the interns at the White House were given a chance to write letters to him. I took a lot of time, earnestly writing about how I thought he ought to have no regrets and that he had been so well prepared for the presidency as former head of the CIA, a former congressman, former envoy to China, and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in addition to having been vice president. Within 48 hours, I received a thoughtfully typed-up letter addressed to me, with my address marked as the White House Executive Office Building (a nice touch), that sincerely thanked me for my letter with a real Bush signature (as opposed to one of those awful stop-start auto-pen signatures that everyone could tell were fake).

After 25 more years working in and around government, I have several other reflections of former President Bush. First, he was no “wimp” as the (hostile) press tried to brand him. On Dec. 3, 1990, a coup attempt began in Argentina, the fourth after the return of democracy there in 1982. Bush was to arrive Dec. 5. I was told by a senior State Department official later that the Secret Service recommended that Bush not go to Argentina because it could not guarantee his personal safety. Despite the personal danger, Bush went anyway and spoke to both houses of the Argentine Congress, giving a boost to President Carlos Menem and his policies of reforming the country. Menem was eternally grateful, and this began an era of good feelings between Argentina and United States that lasted for about 10 years. Argentina broke in early 1991 with its decades of “nonaligned” foreign policy and sent three ships as part of the Gulf War coalition.

Second, Bush believed in the value of allies and relationships. He really worked at U.S. relationships, because he knew America needed friends. Finally, his foreign policy and “grand strategy” have gotten more and more appreciation in the post-Cold War world. The late Bill Martel wrote a very dense but important book about grand strategy in 2015, and his take was that George H.W. Bush was the most successful of America’s four post-Cold War presidents at that point. (I wrote about Martel’s book here.)

I have a photo from the pancake breakfast and the autographed letter framed in my home office. I am going to miss America’s 41st president.

article published in foreignpolicy.com on December 2, 2018.

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