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“If we were not careful, reunification [of Germany] would just come about. If that were to happen, all the fixed points in Europe would collapse: the NATO front-line, the structure of NATO, and the Warsaw Pact; Mr. Gorbachev’s hopes for reform.”

—the British government

——————“The Berlin Wall is down. That means that all Germans are now free to go wherever they want in Europe. Hey, wasn’t that the problem in 1939?”

—Johnny Carson

——————“There seems to be nothing in his record that qualifies him for this highly important position.”

—The New York Times, in 1970, when Nixon appointed George H.W. Bush as UN ambassador, highlighting again the newspaper of record’s dubious track record.


GEORGE H.W. Bush thought Malta would be a good place for his first meeting as president with Mikhail Gorbachev. Oh, the two leaders had met before, but that was when George Bush was vice president, and clearly still in Reagan’s shadow. Now he was president. And it had a nice ring to it, don’t you think? From Yalta to Malta. From the beginning of the Cold War to the end of it.

George H.W. Bush could have lectured the Soviets and their leader. There might have been other presidents who would have welcomed the opportunity. George Bush could have used the words “assistance” and “help” and “aid” when the subject of the struggling—the drowning—Soviet economy came up. He could have told the general secretary what to do—or tried. He could have come to Malta as the conquering hero, and told the story of how the West had won.

And he could have killed the whole democratic movement, at least in eastern Europe, in the crib.

For to show too much anticipation, too much glee, of the Soviets losing their armored grip on eastern Europe—what the Germans call schadenfreude— would have emboldened conservative critics of Gorbachev in the USSR, and boy, did he have them. But for President Bush the First to show no support for perestroika would have been to abandon reformers inside and out of the Soviet Union, and betray Western values. The man had to walk a tight rope, diplomatically. And did so. Expertly.

The president, coming to a shipboard meeting with his counterpart after being tossed around in the Malta storm, might have been a little seasick, but he knew his mission. He must be prudent. For which Saturday Night Live would later mock him.

But prudent he was. And he helped usher in a new day of democracy all across Europe. And set much of the world free. Not only for the things he said and did, but for the things he didn’t say and didn’t do.

HAS THERE ever been a one-term presidency of more consequence? And with more consequential events? If just the Berlin Wall had fallen during George H.W. Bush’s presidency, that would have made his presidency one for the history books. But then democracy started to spread in the Warsaw Pact nations (as if Warsaw had any say on how it would go under Soviet rule). Eastern Europeans threw off their overlords. Chinese students tried. And oh, yes, the Soviets would disappear during his presidency, too. And, for the first time in human history, a superpower nation with 20,000 nuclear weapons broke apart.

Then a crazy dictator from the Middle East invaded his neighbor—and America went to war.

The same month that Tiananmen Square happened, the Polish Communist Party lost every candidate on the ballot, and the Ayatollah Khomeini died.

The world needed a guiding hand.

George H.W. Bush didn’t trust Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, but he wouldn’t undermine him, either. An American president of a weaker constitution might have done or said nothing during the draw-down of Soviet forces all over the world, and thus not given those yearning for freedom any hope at all. We’ve seen it happen. (See 2009, Spring, Arab.) An American president of a more rowdy constitution might have said something impolitic, and thus bring Comrade Gorbachev a coup at home.

As the world began to change, the world needed a steady captain aboard the USS United States. It was lucky to have George H.W. Bush.

Fools and academics would call it the End of History. But as the essayist theorized, democracy had indeed won. At least in Europe and western Asia.

If Brent Scowcroft could call his and his boss’ foreign policy unimaginative, he didn’t mean it as an insult. This president understood diplomacy.

HE MIGHT have been the most prepared person to ever win the presidency, the first President Bush. He had been a war hero, then a businessman, then a congressman, then an ambassador to the UN, and then to mainland China during the modern “opening” of that country. Oh, did we mention he was the chairman of his own party here at home, then director of the CIA? Wasn’t he somebody’s vice president for eight years before winning the presidency in his own right? If our fleeting memory proves correct, he was the first sitting vice president to win the presidency outright since a man of German background named Martin Van Buren.

Yes, President George H.W. Bush used the word “prudent” often in press conferences. And was accused of being slow—not unintelligent, but too careful. But that didn’t stop him from leading the entire world, including former enemies, into battle to free a small country in the Middle East—and free the world’s oil supply along with it. The Gulf War (the first one) was not only an act of great military competence, but one of historic diplomacy, too. For crying out loud, he had the Russians issuing joint press releases with the Americans on the need to do something for Kuwait. There’s a reason why the standard form of address these days is Coalition Forces.

A congressman named Jim Wright once joked that Bush was “the only Texan I know who eats lobster with his chili.” Well, maybe. But he also had sense of humor enough to invite the comedian who imitated him on SNL to the White House to perform. The man had style.

IN HIS later years, George Herbert Walker Bush would become a man of few words. That according to his secretaries. He especially didn’t want to talk to the press when his son was president. He knew that any daylight between his opinions and his son’s would make headlines, and President Bush II’s life more complicated. Besides, he told folks toward the end, “I’ve run out of things to say.”

Why, that’s the best way to end an essay about this man, father, public servant and war hero. After you’ve run out of things to say.

Hail to the chief, sir.

(Suggested reading: When the World Seemed New by Jeffrey Engel and The Last Republicans by Mark Updegrove.)

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