The Irreducible Niceness of George H. W. Bush
“Leave the kid alone,” George Herbert Walker Bush said, when, as a teen-age boy at Andover, he spotted a fellow-student being bullied. As if he were Zorro, performing a casual rescue and then vanishing, Bush left Bruce Gelb, the undersized Jewish kid he’d aided, to ask a witness, “Who was that?” Gelb learned that it was Poppy Bush, “the greatest kid in the school.”
The eulogies for “41,” who died on Friday, will note his underage enlistment in the Navy after Pearl Harbor—how he went from preppy god of the baseball diamond to bomber pilot over the Pacific, with no intermediate step—but the scourge-of-bullies story, told in Jon Meacham’s biography of him, is the essential tale from Bush’s Andover days. It contains the boy who, almost fifty years later, startled the Republican Convention that had just nominated him for President by saying that he wanted a “kinder, gentler nation.” The phrase seemed odd, even candy-assed, to some; it would be mocked, its potential meanings never much pondered. What that night’s audience liked better was “Read my lips,” the signal for a no-new-taxes pledge, a piece of absolutism that didn’t come naturally to a pragmatic moderate. It was those words that, four years later, would do Bush in.
The 1988 campaign was anything but kind and gentle. There was the racially charged Willie Horton ad, in which Bush attacked Michael Dukakis’s furlough program for Massachusetts prisoners. Bush’s opponents—and some of his friends—thought that he had cheapened himself in the bare-knuckled grasp of his young campaign manager, Lee Atwater. The opponents acted surprised, claimed they were disappointed in him, as if anyone ever got that far in the game without playing rough. (Al Gore had first gone after the furlough program, albeit without mentioning Horton, when running against Dukakis in the primaries.) Bush’s foes derided his résumé as a sort of gilded joke, reciting all the appointive offices he’d briefly held—U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Republican National Committee chairman, U.S. Special Representative to China, C.I.A. director—as if they were a string of presents meted out to some trust-fund boy who’d done nothing to earn them. In fact, Bush rose in the Party because of electoral, not appointive, politics. And he rose, curiously enough, by losing—twice, in Senate runs in a still-blue Texas, in 1964 and 1970. He took two for the team, and the Republican Party owed him.
Even when he tried to kick ass with the silver foot supposedly lodged in his mouth from birth, there remained an irreducible niceness to him, an appealing mixture of noblesse oblige, boy-next-door bonhomie, and parody-begging goofiness—“the vision thing.” He can be found, still on his way up, in his late forties, making some appearances, as both conversationalist and subject, on the Nixon White House tapes. On November 29, 1972, the President is making sure that H. R. Haldeman presses Bob Dole to leave the R.N.C. chairmanship sooner rather than later, so that it can be turned over to Bush, who was then the U.N. Ambassador. Nixon, afraid that Bush will be oversensitive to Dole’s feelings and won’t join in the effort to speed up implementation of what’s already a done deal, reminds his chief of staff that “George is such a sweet guy.” He doesn’t say it with the scorn or sarcasm that a word like “sweet” usually called forth from him. He utters it with a sort of charmed appreciation, as if he’s just remembered a unicorn that sometimes gambols on the South Lawn. In November, 1972, weeks after Nixon’s reëlection landslide, with Watergate just a passing cloud, the R.N.C. job was still a plum. A few months later, Bush would start to take a third, prolonged pummelling for the team.
He eventually became the President who presided over a brief but glorious Pax Americana. (Bruce Gelb, by then a wealthy businessman and devoted contributor, became his Ambassador to Belgium, the little country handed to the kid like a signed jersey.) If Reagan had thrown the touchdown pass of the Cold War, Bush was the one who caught it, and when he got to the end zone he famously refused to spike the ball, as if he’d also caught sight of his mother in the grandstand, warning against self-congratulation. (He is the only modern-day President not to have written his memoirs.) Between 1989 and 1993, Bush became, in Maureen Dowd’s phrase, “the gracious cruise director of international politics.” He also directed a just war—Kuwait was being bullied—toward a fast conclusion.
As the “vision thing” goes, kinder and gentler was actually profound. It didn’t take, of course. The nation has become spectacularly meaner, to the point that George H. W. Bush is likely to be remembered as the last President of the republic not to have been intensely despised by a significant portion of its population. Now, instead of having the greatest kid in the school as our President, we have Cartman, someone who surely would have been smacking Bruce Gelb around in 1940. One’s strange reaction to the death of George Bush—the end of a life well-lived into its tenth decade—turns out to be bitter disappointment. I’ve just dug out a friend’s e-mail from December, 2016: “I was discussing 41’s health with a colleague this morning, and we realized that Trump will be delivering his eulogy if GHWB can’t hang on for four years. What a rotten end for an honorable man.”