It’s Just Fine To Be Of Two Minds About George H.W. Bush

Many people woke up to the news Saturday morning that former president George H.W. Bush died the night before.

Immediately, tributes began to pour in to the 41st president, especially from the men who had held his job.

The tribute from the Secret Service was especially touching.

But almost as soon, critiques rained down as well, many of them focused on Bush’s decision to form a global coalition to fight Saddam Hussein.

Meanwhile, number of people were distressed at the bluntness of the Associated Press, in a snap assessment of his life.

As a number of critics have noted, social media does not allow for much subtlety. And, as people heard the news, they shared their gut reactions.

Version one: Bush was a statesman, a model of courtesy rarely seen now in politics, a loving husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

Version two: he was a terrible president who led the nation into war, bungled foreign policy decisions, and went down to defeat by Bill Clinton.

It’s completely possible that they’re both right. You don’t have to be either/or about Bush, unless you only see the world in black and white, and then, I hope that kind of attitude works well for you.

Americans have this odd predilection to want their leaders to be perfect, or to insist that they ARE perfect in the face of evidence to the contrary. Spoiler alert: none of them are even close to blameless.

We’ve seen that now for the past two years in the most ardent supporters of Donald Trump. My president, right or wrong, they stubbornly declare, despite behavior that is impossible to describe as anything but erratic.

When it comes to Bush, however, it’s important to pull back the lens and see the entire person, as well as the president.

Bush represents the kind of credentials that everyone used to want in a president. He was a U.S. Navy fighter pilot. He had a long and by all accounts happy marriage to one woman, Barbara Bush. A large and loving family.

He served in the private sector, and in Congress, held a multitude of government positions, spent eight years as vice president and was elected as president to succeed Ronald Reagan.

His term in office was tumultuous, however. Iraq invaded Kuwait, and America formed a coalition of countries to liberate the country. But Saddam remained in power, meaning to some that America did not finish the job.

Meanwhile, a recession swept the United States in the wake of the war. A stall out in short term loans to car dealers almost sent General Motors into bankruptcy, a story I recounted in my book Collision Course: Inside the Battle For General Motors.

It was a foreshadowing of what was to happen to the car companies 17 years later, amid an even more devastating recession forced by a Wall Street meltdown, rather than a war.

Bush never really recovered from the downturn, or the displeasure by some at seeing American troops sent to war.

To be honest, he may simply have grown stale with Americans, after eight years as vice president and four as president, and it opened the door for Bill Clinton to defeat him.

But, no matter what you thought of him as president, Bush’s behavior as an ex-president helped him re-win the hearts of many Americans.

His relentless optimism, his support for volunteerism, his enthusiastic embrace of baseball and sky diving, and his welcoming nature for visiting Democrats and Republicans alike earned him admiration.

I’m particularly touched by his friendship with Obama, and the closeness of the Obamas and the Bushes.

We saw it in the photograph from Barbara Bush’s funeral, and we saw it again in the teasing relationship between Michelle Obama and George W. Bush at John McCain’s funeral.

It was a nice touch this past Tuesday when Bush’s long-time spokesman, Jim McGrath, sent out this tweet. (Note the multiple use of the word “very.”)

It seems fitting that the last thing we knew about a former president was that he welcomed another former president. Never mind that they were different parties, different races or different generations.

Bush was a host being visited by a guest, who made a special trip to see him.

And no matter what history writes about Bush as a president, I’m also happy to think of his relationship with Obama and the positive things it says about America at a particularly stressful time.

People are waiting for that sense of courtesy and generous spirit to return to Washington, where it has been so sorely missed the past two years.

Bush himself said it well in a commencement speech at the University of Michigan in 1991.

“ The quality of your life and of our nation’s future depends as much on how you treat your fellow women and men as it does on the way in which we in Washington conduct our affairs this day. After all, the opposite of greed is not taxation. It is service.”

Terrible president? If you say so. Exemplary man? That’s what I’d say, too.

Micheline Maynard writes frequently for Medium. She tweets @mickimaynard

Journalist. Author. The Check blog on NPR and NYT alum

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