During his 1989 presidential inaugural address, George H.W. Bush, as had many of his predecessors, called for a fresh start — for turning the page. “The new breeze blows, a page turns, the story unfolds. And so today a chapter begins, a small and stately story of unity, diversity and generosity — shared, and written, together.”
Neither political party had won three consecutive elections since Franklin D. Roosevelt in November 1940 with war raging in both Europe and Asia. But this time was different — large Democratic majorities controlled both houses of Congress — the largest opposition majorities faced by any newly elected president in U.S. history.
For eight years, George Bush had served with unquestioned loyalty as vice president to Ronald Reagan, whom he had come to admire. Both had a deep interest in getting things done; both embraced a philosophy grounded in individual freedom, equality of opportunity, a commitment to economic growth (they were two of the three U.S. presidents to major in economics in college) and a sense of stewardship regarding the legacy left to future generations.
Now he would have to chart his own course and deal with a fresh set of conditions internationally and domestically. He entered office with deep and broad experience in foreign policy gained while serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the nation’s first liaison to the People’s Republic of China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and eight years as vice president. He also had served as a two-term member of the House of Representatives and as chairman of the Republican National Committee. During these years of preparation he had developed a wide range of relationships while earning the respect and enjoying the friendship of leaders around the world as well as in both parties in Congress.
Great leaders invariably exhibit three characteristics — think Washington, Lincoln, both Roosevelts and more.
First, they skillfully balance the imperatives of the present with the needs of the future. They do not simply seek to cope with the current set of challenges they face but they are constantly thinking about precedents, trends and where their choices might alter the path on which the nation is heading. They manage the present with the long-term future in mind.
Whether dealing with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rising growth of budget deficits, the stalemate on dealing with air pollution, the global trading system or the nation’s schools, George H.W. Bush consistently focused on long-term considerations.
Addressing the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait provided an opportunity to frame the issue of territorial integrity as a global responsibility meriting a global response. The fall of the Berlin Wall provided an opportunity, if skillfully handled, to assist a host of countries in developing democratic political institutions. The collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe provided the catalyst for the reunification of Germany as a member of NATO and where Germany could play a crucially important role in the European Union.
Second, great leaders deal with the circumstances they inherit and transform them by teaching reality and building coalitions that will produce lasting agreements and arrangements.
Faced with budget deficits projected to rise dramatically and a Congress that had refused to enact but a small portion of his spending restraint initiatives the previous year, George H.W. Bush called for a bipartisan deficit reduction negotiation. Rarely have I witnessed anyone agonize, as he did, over his decision to put revenues along with spending on the table. He successfully negotiated approximately three dollars in spending restraint for every dollar of revenue increases. He recognized that dealing with the changed fiscal reality would involve breaking his no new taxes campaign pledge. He only did so by insisting on firm caps on spending and instituting a pay-go provision the combination of which provided the foundation for producing a balanced federal budget in less than a decade.
He also was skilled in creating common ground in the international arena. At a small dinner two decades ago in Kennebunkport, British Prime Minister John Major in his remarks observed that the coalition created by the United States to address the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was the most comprehensive ever constructed in history and that he did not know of a leader who could have done it as skillfully as George H.W. Bush.
With respect to the environment, he advanced a comprehensive proposal to break a more than decade-long gridlock on the Clean Air Act, securing passage of his painstakingly negotiated agreement by a vote of 89-11 in the Senate and 401-21 in the House of Representatives. He negotiated national education goals endorsed and embraced by all 50 governors in the wake of his Summit Conference with Governors on Education.
Third, great leaders lead by example — through their words and even more through their actions.
This intangible quality of leadership is sometimes less widely appreciated. Those who study leadership often call it tone at the top. Perhaps no term captures this element of leadership as completely as does character. It embraces not merely what one says but who one is.
For George H.W. Bush, one of the most powerful elements of his life was service. It is reflected in his Thousand Points of Light initiative that has continued now for more than a quarter of a century. His touchstones were honor and duty.13 comments on this story
He not only spoke about a kinder, gentler America but by his example of generosity, goodness and relentless service to others, he reminded his fellow citizens of what our nation can and should be. Historians will long debate whether George H.W. Bush is, as some have claimed, our greatest one-term president. Whatever the outcome of that debate, most will agree that he left office with the same gracefulness with which he entered it. And, not least, that he inspired many by his example to view public service as a noble calling.