I feel it needs to be said again: George Herbert Walker Bush should have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership during the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was an epic moment in modern world history, and a close-run thing. “One mishap and much could unravel,” former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said, in his eulogy, of those days when the wall was falling, the Warsaw Pact countries rising and the Soviet Union trying to keep its footing as it came to terms with its inevitable end. Patience and shrewdness were needed from the leader of the West, a sensitive, knowing hand.
In “A World Transformed” (1998), Bush described his public approach as being marked by “gentle encouragement.” It caused him some trouble: “I had been under constant criticism for being too cautious, perhaps because I was subdued in my reaction to events. This was deliberate.” He didn’t want to embarrass or provoke. He reminded Mikhail Gorbachev, at the December 1989 Malta summit, that “I have not jumped up and down on the Berlin Wall.”
It was Bush’s gift to be sensitive even to Soviet generals who were seeing their world collapse around them. He knew a humiliated foe is a dangerous foe—and this foe had a nuclear arsenal. He slowly, carefully helped ease Russia out of its old ways and structures, helped it stand as its ground firmed up, and helped divided Germany blend together peacefully, fruitfully.
You’d think the world would have been at his feet, and the prizes flying in from Oslo. It didn’t happen. Why?
Here’s a theory: Bush’s achievement wasn’t seen for what it was, in part because America in those days was still going forward in the world with its old mystique. Its ultimate grace and constructiveness were a given. It had gallantly saved its friends in the First World War, and again in the Second; it had led the West’s resistance to communism. It was expected to do good.
Having won the war, of course it would win the peace. It seemed unremarkable that George Bush, and Brent Scowcroft, and a host of others did just that.
Bush was the last president to serve under—and add to—that American mystique. It has dissipated in the past few decades through pratfalls, errors and carelessness, with unwon wars and the economic crisis of 2008. The great foreign-affairs challenge now is to go forward in the world successfully while knowing the mystique has been lessened, and doing everything possible to win it back.
Bush came to be somewhat defensive about his reticence in those days. As a former aide I respected his caution, his sense that the wrong move could cause things to go dark at any moment. But I saw it differently: This was a crucial event in the history of the West, and its meaning needed stating by the American president. There was much to be lauded, from the hard-won unity of the West to Russia’s decision to move bravely toward new ways. Much could be said without triumphalism.
It is a delicate question, in statecraft as in life, when to speak and when not to. George Bush thought it was enough to do it, not say it, as the eulogists asserted. He trusted the people to infer his reasoning from his actions. (This was his approach on his tax increase, also.) But in the end, to me, leadership is persuasion and honest argument: This is my thinking. I ask you to see it my way.
Something deeply admirable, though: No modern president now considers silence to be an option, ever. It is moving to remember one who did, who trusted the people to perceive and understand his actions. Who respected them that much.
To the state funeral in the Washington Cathedral: Its pomp and ceremony served to connect Americans to our past and remind us of our dignity. In a way, it was a resummoning of our mystique. It was, for a moment, the tonic a divided nation needed.
There was majesty—the gleaming precision of the full-dress military, the flag-draped casket coming down the aisle, the bowed heads and hands on hearts, the bells tolling, the dignified solemnity.
For those of us in the pews there was none of the sadness and anguish that accompanies the leaving of a soul gone too soon, or tragically. This was a full life happily lived, and we were there to applaud, to see each other and say, “Remember that time?”
There was a sense of gratitude that the old man had, the past week, gotten his due. For decades the press and others had roughed him up—“wimp,” “lapdog.” His contributions had not been fully appreciated. Now they were. We were happy but not triumphalist.
We were reminded: History changes its mind. Nothing is set. A historical reputation can change, utterly. Sometimes history needs time and distance to see the landscape clearly.
And history is human. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the seniormost world leader, was there. Back home her party was in the middle of a battle to choose her successor, and she couldn’t afford to be gone. But when she heard of Bush’s death she said she had to come to Washington. She told reporters that without Bush, she “would hardly be standing here.” She had grown up in East Germany.
There was something else. She had told Bob Kimmitt, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany, that Bush had treated her “like a somebody when I was not.” Meeting with the obscure junior minister in the Oval Office in 1991, the president treated the young woman with great personal and professional respect. And so there she was this week, because history is human and how you treat people matters.
Two other points about the funeral. Its unembarrassed religiosity and warmly asserted Christianity were beautiful, and refreshing. The burial rite was from the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer, and it was a great and moving moment when the presiding bishop, Rev. Bruce Curry, met the flag-draped coffin at the Great West Doors and said: “With faith in Jesus Christ, we receive the body of our brother George for burial.” Such simple, humble, egalitarian words. “Our brother George.” The frozen chosen done themselves proud.
And there was a consistent message in the speeches. George Bush in his 94 years asked for and received everything—a big, loving family, wealth, position, power, admiration. But the lesson of that life was clear: He worked for it, he poured himself into it. He gave it everything he had. He made sacrifices to be who he was.
We gave a lot of attention to his life this week, in part because we want to remind ourselves that such fruitful lives are possible. We want to show the young among us what should be respected and emulated, and that public service can be a calling, and that calling brilliantly met.
This was a good man, a brave one who proved himself solid when major edifices of the world were melting away. He was kind and gentle.
And he loved America.
We were lucky to have him—the steady one, the sensitive one. The diplomat.