As the nation prepares to bid farewell to the late President George H.W. Bush, I am reminded of my own story about our country’s 41st President.
During one of my summers when I was in college, I worked as a farmhand on a beautiful farm along Lake Champlain in Vermont for a man named Dunbar Bostwick. Mr. Bostwick was the fourth child of Albert Carlton Bostwick, Sr. and Mary Lillian Stokes. His father was a prominent New York automobile and yacht racer. His grandfather was a partner of John D. Rockefeller.
By the time that I knew him, Mr. Bostwick was in his 80s and had this amazing family farm. In the morning, I would do chores around the farm, like tending to the horses or helping Mr. Bostwick with an errand. In the afternoon, I would help with other major projects like irrigation or helping restore an 18th century farmhouse. (Mr. Bostwick joked with me one time that while I was a hard worker, I had a tendency to break too many pieces of equipment!)
He was a Yale alumnus and would reminisce about his time in college. At one point, Mr. Bostwick, a former pilot, shared with me that he had taken fellow Yale alum President Bush on his very first airplane ride. Bush was president at the time, and I was aware of his experience as a pilot during WWII. That story and personal connection stuck with me, and I think I always saw George H.W. Bush as a more human character knowing this personal connection with Mr. Bostwick.
I think it’s sometimes hard to look at major historical figures as real people, but “real” is an apt word for the late President. History and historians will look kindly on his legacy. Certainly, he was not perfect—no leader is. But on balance, Bush provided steady leadership to the nation during a difficult time. The end of the Cold War and the emergence of a new world order could have led to disarray. Bush and his team managed with incredible judgment the break-up of the Soviet Union, the end of fighting in Central America, and the aggression against Kuwait.
The legacy of Vietnam was fresh in the minds of Americans in the 1980s and early 1990s. Bush avoided larger wars while still standing up for American values and ideals. At home, he was willing to do what was politically unpopular to better serve the nation. Instead of blindly following ideology and partisan rhetoric, he was willing to work across the aisle to protect the economy. Ultimately, he lost his re-election bid because of his willingness to do the right thing for the nation instead of his own political interests.
Even after his presidency, President Bush took bold stands for causes and positions in which he believed. I found two great articles about President Bush’s legacy, one in Slate and a George Will essay in the National Review.
Of course, the word most often associated with Bush the elder is “prudent.” David Von Drehle wrote an insightful piece in the Washington Post about the meaning of this word and how it is reflected in Bush’s leadership as a virtue.
As a kid in my early 20s during his presidency, I, of course, loved Dana Carvey’s impression of Bush on Saturday Night Live. This past weekend, SNL rebroadcast a clip of President Bush debating with Dana Carvey about his impression. It was funny and showed Bush’s humility and his ability as a leader to laugh at himself.
The punchline, of course… “Not going to do it. Wouldn’t be prudent”… still gets laughs. But, as Von Drehle and current and future historians will record, this wasn’t just a punchline. It was wisdom that guided sober and informed leadership. There is a lesson for all of us in here. In an age in which we all have been accustomed to instant results and immediate gratification, Bush the elder stood for something bigger than his own ego and his own immediate success. He put his country first, and that is something I think we can all respect.