John J. Metzler
“He showed me what it means to be a President who serves with integrity, leads with courage and acts with love in his heart for the citizens of our country,” intoned former President George W. Bush in an emotional eulogy at his late father’s state funeral.
Magisterial commemorations in Washington remind us of the trappings and pomp of this Republic. The heartfelt messages from friend and former political foe alike recall that George H.W. Bush who died at 94, was respected as a Patriot, Parent, Politician, and President.
While accolades abound, let’s take a look back at the Bush 41 Presidency and its role in the tumultuous times which reshaped Europe, the Middle East and East Asia.
During WWII as a U.S. Navy pilot, Bush flew many combat missions in the Pacific before being shot down and subsequently rescued. After the war he resumed his studies at Yale. Presidential historian Jon Meacham, opined he was “America’s last great soldier statesman.”
Clearly, the passing of the last WWII President has signaled a generational shift in many ways.
Serving as UN Ambassador during the fractious “China seat” debate in the General Assembly in 1971, Bush initially pressed for a separate two-seat solution for both Taiwan and Mainland China.
But the Assembly voted to replace Taiwan’s UN membership with the Beijing communists. He served as the first American envoy to People’s Republic of China still in the throes of the brutal Cultural Revolution.
Later as Vice President to Ronald Reagan, Bush soldiered on under not always the most comfortable arrangements.
After an impressive win of his own in the 1988 elections, H.W. Bush was elected President and promised a “kinder gentler America” which would be celebrated by a Thousand Points of Light.
China policy would return to haunt him as President during Beijing’s bloody crackdown on pro- democracy students protesting in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.
Both to his critics and friends, H.W.’s shortcomings were often measured in the shadow of Ronald Reagan. Reagan was the Conservative Republican and Bush the Republican Moderate.
H.W. Bush was awkward with “sound bites.” Long before today’s 24/7 News cycle, he was often mocked and maligned by a malicious mainstream media who often portrayed him as a detached patrician.
The momentous events of the 1989 Freedom Tsunami saw massive demonstrations demand and regain sovereignty of Central Europe; Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia. These extraordinary times signaling the end of the Cold War, witnessed the reunification of West and East Germany.
As the Joshua trumpet sounded and the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, it was Bush who contrary to many advisors, did not visit the freed and united German capital to do the proverbial victory lap round the Berlin Wall. This was Germany’s party he insisted. Moreover, Bush had the political gravitas not to openly insult the Soviets and their reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev who was after all instrumental in these extraordinary changes.
The road to German unity, now a generation ago, was fraught with peril. A peaceful transition was not at all assured so only careful, cautious and transparent diplomacy with the Russians made this possible. Agreement from Britain, France, the other allied powers sealed the deal and German reunification came on Oct. 3, 1990.
George H.W. Bush became the midwife to German unity in peace and freedom. In respect German Chancellor Angela Merkel attended his funeral.
Equally during the monumental breakup and collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991; the freedom wave which began in the Reagan era, crested on his watch. Again, Bush did not publicly gloat.
Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 confronted him with a blunt and unexpected challenge in the Middle East. He and his adroit Secretary of State James Baker created a 44 member military coalition which liberated Kuwait from Saddam’s grip.
His loss to Bill Clinton in 1992 in a nasty three-way election (Bush, Clinton, Perot) was shadowed by an impending economic recession.
Years later, both Bush and Clinton, both then ex-presidents, joined hands in Indonesia after the tsunami tragedy to deliver humanitarian aid to the victims. His former political adversary Bill Clinton wrote, “He was an honorable, gracious and decent man who believed in the United States, our Constitution, our institutions and our shared future.”
Part of the H.W. Bush hallmark was hands across the political aisle. Despite having the Democrat party control both houses of Congress, the late President was able to pass landmark legislation. His legacy serves as a goalpost for the upcoming Congressional session.
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014).