On August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon, resigning, left the White House. “You will be remembered as a great President,” consoled Henry Kissinger. Nixon replied: “Henry, that depends on who writes the history.” It has been 16 years since George H.W. Bush left office a one-term President. What does history say? What it didn’t then.
Typically, Bush blamed himself, not aides, for losing to Bill Clinton in 1992. “I couldn’t get through. I’d say, ‘The economy is recovering,’ and people said, ‘Bush is out of touch.’” The 41st President brooded, then found defeat’s silver lining: “I don’t need new suits for the rest of my life!”
Inevitably, history looked anew: Today, Gallup calls 41 post-1963’s second-most-admired President. Cynically, some use his reappraisal to lash Bush fils: barbs columnistMike Lupica, “The dad is a giant compared with the son.” More crucial is time passing. With distance, perspective on pere has cleared.
Last month an aircraft carrier was commissioned in the war hero’s honor: “The last big thing in my life,” he calls the USS George H.W. Bush. Perhaps not, given a recent meeting with W., Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Kibitzing, Bush pere and Obama looked like new old friends. Forty-one’s real “last big thing” may be to guide the 44th President where he already wants to go:
First, “I have enormous empathy,” Obama says, “for his foreign policy.” When the Berlin Wall fell, Germany reunited, and Soviet Union cratered, Bushrefused to gloat. As Saddam Hussein’s Mother of All Battles became an Orphan of Defeat, 41 spurned taking Baghdad, miming Colin Powell’s “You break it, you own it.” No ex-President better grasps Obama’s goal: Be strong, yet wise.
Second, Bush smoothed the rough edges of Reaganism: child care, disability legislation, and a Clean Air Act rewrite. Antipodally, the Right liked Clarence Thomas and more funds v. drugs. Obama named two GOP Cabinet members, put Rick Warren in his Inaugural, and touts tax cuts for stimulus. To Bush, the Presidency meant example. Example meant bipartisanship: Good will begets good will.
Third, America wants a President it can admire. Like 41, Obama seems to loathe a Harold Hill type of flim-flam, preferring nuance, deep-going knowledge, and prudence, a word Bush twitted. It is hard to picture either fondling an intern, fearing a killer rabbit, or giving a neck massage to Germany’s female Prime Minister. Neither is likely to embarrass us, or them.
Fourth, America’s increasingly dysfunctional family needs a functional Family Man. In retirement, Bush passed a rule: Any of his then-15 grandchildren must “deimperialize the post-Presidency” by giving him a hug. Asked 41’s proudest feat, he said, “Our [now-grown] kids still like to come home.” One can imagine 44 saying that in 2025.
To Obama, family means wife Michelle and two daddy’s girls. “We want them to be sweet, courteous, and respectful,” he says of Sasha, 7, and Malia, 10: a thumbed nose at a culture where character is for squares. Joseph Kennedy told son Robert: “You can solve the [Cold War] Berlin crisis, but nothing matters if you mess up your family.” Like 41, the new President would agree.
In June, Bush, turning 85, will parachute from a plane to show that “old guys can do stuff.” Obama, 47, is younger than any President except Clinton, JFK, TR, and Grant. Bush was a globe-trottingVeep; Obama, community organizer. 44 is a Roy Hobbs of rhetoric. To 41, “English is my second language.” Bush thought Pacman a camper, not video game. The blackberry is Obama’s third arm and leg. Yet threads connect of intellect and temperament.
In 1993, Bush was knighted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. Back home, he asked wife Barbara, “How does it feel to be married to a real knight? She answered: “Sir George, make the coffee.” Obama concedes his wife similarly twitting him. In many ways, he may find 41 a man with whom to talk, even bond.
My hunch is that Obama will consult Bush pere more than any former President – and that most Americans will applaud. It might not be prudent to say Bush’s “last big thing” lies ahead. But it might be right.
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