Almost three decades after he left office, it is clear that George H.W. Bush was the most consequential one-term president of the last century despite his defeat when he ran for a second term.
His death Friday at age 94 focuses well-deserved attention on a record of accomplishment that includes skillful handling of the collapse of the Soviet empire, passage of the most important civil-rights legislation in two decades in the Americans with Disabilities Act, successful prosecution of the first Gulf War, and a budget agreement that cost him politically but imposed spending discipline and paved the way for a balanced federal budget.
But even as those accomplishments are remembered, it is striking how often those who knew Bush move quickly to the personal traits that made them so intensely loyal to him but that were never evident to voters who viewed him as out of touch or lacking empathy. Marlin Fitzwater, who served as Bush’s press secretary both when he was vice president and president, recalled his “sense of dignity and courtesy toward others.” Fitzwater told National Journal, “He knew how to conduct his life. He just very seldom either spoke impetuously or with anger. And so he was always the polite gentleman that he was brought up to be.”
This is how he was raised: amid obvious privilege but stern warnings of the obligation to serve others and never—ever—brag. With his father, financier and later Sen. Prescott Bush, often away in New York, the child-rearing was done primarily by the clan’s mother, Dorothy Walker Bush. And nothing angered her more than bragging, according to George’s younger brother, William Henry Bush, who told me in 1989 that their mother taught them that boasting is “extraordinarily gauche.”
And, in those days of Depression, the Bushes could have easily held their noses in the air. The future president grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, and on holidays shuttled between family estates—Christmases at a South Carolina plantation named Duncannon and summers at Walker Point, a stunning piece of property on the rocky Maine coast. During the school year, Bush was driven to prestigious Greenwich Country Day School by Alec, the family chauffeur. At home, there were maids and a cook.
But amid that affluence, his parents insisted on a sense of noblesse oblige, a feeling of obligation to repay society for the blessings he enjoyed. And—always—courtesy in the way others were treated. Common courtesy rarely survives long political careers. But it did with Bush and it is a common thread in the comments of those who worked with him.
“That’s probably the best part of George Bush,” said longtime aide Sig Rogich in an interview for the George H.W. Bush Oral History Project at the University of Virginia. “The most significant thing I always found about him was that he had a great affinity for people’s feelings. I never ever saw him dress anyone down, from an advance person who might have made a flub-up ... to a senior staffer who screwed up. He might roll his eyes a little bit, but he was very conscious of the fact that there is a human side to everybody and it’s fragile.”
That showed up—sometimes to his political disadvantage—in the way he governed, particularly in the way he conducted foreign policy. Bush had entered the White House with the most impressive resume since John Quincy Adams. He had been a member of the House, ambassador to the United Nations, Republican Party chairman, envoy to China, head of the CIA, and vice president of the United States. The one constant at every stop along the way was courtesy.
It did, though, get him in trouble on the day that the Berlin Wall fell.
Bush believed firmly that the secret to foreign policy success was personal relationships with other world leaders. For decades—at the UN, in China, with the CIA, and through all the jokes about his vice-presidential duty of attending foreign funerals—he worked to build trust with other leaders. He knew well the history of Soviet crackdowns at any sign of freedom in its satellites. So he was concerned about how Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would interpret his reaction on Nov. 9, 1989, when East German border guards unexpectedly stopped preventing Germans from crossing into the west.
Suddenly, the world as it had been known for more than four decades was different. But even as jubilant crowds celebrated the development across the globe, Bush was cautious. “The president really didn’t want to make a statement in view of the uncertainty of everything,” said his national-security adviser, Brent Scowcroft. “Rather than give a press conference, he agreed to let a press pool come into the Oval Office and speak to him at his desk.”
I was in that pool and was struck—as were the other reporters there and those who saw it on television—by the president’s demeanor. The rest of the world was celebrating but the leader of the victorious alliance slumped in his chair and seemed anything but happy. A surprised Lesley Stahl of CBS observed, “You don’t seem elated.” Bush’s response was flat: “I am not an emotional kind of guy.” But Stahl pressed him, asking, “Well, how elated are you?” He responded, “I’m very pleased,” adding, “The fact that I’m not bubbling over, maybe it’s getting along towards evening, because I feel very good about it.”
Years later, Scowcroft explained the president’s muted response. “What he was fundamentally trying to do is not say too much that might be contradicted later and also not to appear to gloat and stimulate a Soviet reaction to it,” he told U.Va. “It was a difficult time and he got a lot of flak for seeming uncaring about such a dramatic event in the ending of the Cold War.”
But even as he took a hit domestically for his response, Bush got the desired reaction from Gorbachev, who appreciated the lack of what Bush’s mother would have called bragging. It was only years later that Fitzwater said he discovered the extent of the Bush-Gorbachev contact after that day. “There was this enormous personal relationship that he had with Gorbachev in the two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in which they stayed in personal contact by telephone and by letter far more than any set of foreign leaders in probably the last 70 years,” Fitzwater said. He explained that Bush “never told anybody” about those contacts because he did not want Kremlin hard-liners to use them against Gorbachev.
Bush’s courtesy—almost courtliness—extended even to the less powerful. At a June 1990, press conference, the president called on Susan Page, who then worked for Newsday. But he mistakenly called her “Ann.” Not exactly an earthshaking error. Presidents rarely know the names of all the reporters who cover them. And a president almost never worries if he makes a mistake with them. But Bush cared. When he realized he had gotten the name of a regular wrong, he sat down and composed a handwritten note to Page in which he tried to make her feel better by suggesting he had mixed her up with a glamorous movie star. “Dear Susan,” he wrote. “I know you’re not Ann. Ann Margaret lives on the West Coast. But I forgot. Will you forgive me? Say ‘yes.’ Sincerely, George Bush.”
I also saw that courtesy at a particularly tough time for Bush. He was angry about his defeat in 1992, a loss he blamed partly on his press coverage. I was with him on his final presidential overseas trip, a visit to troops stationed in Somalia. I was the only newspaper reporter staying with him on New Year’s Eve aboard the Tripoli, an amphibious assault ship stationed off the Somali coast. He was angry at reporters in general, but couldn’t help himself from being nice to an individual reporter he had known for a decade. Whenever we encountered each other on the ship, he made sure to ask about my sleeping accommodations and wish me a Happy New Year’s.
His aides were worried about his legacy. But the 41st president of the United States was worried about my comfort. Today, that unflagging concern for others stands as an important part of how he’ll be remembered.