A tribute to President George H.W. Bush

On Friday, the 94-year journey of George Herbert Walker Bush came to a close. At once, Americans from all walks of life began paying tribute to this great patriot, and giving thanks — For his fearless heroism in wartime skies. For his dedicated, expert service at the highest levels of government, in one essential role after another. For his loving fatherhood of a great family.

I am not the first to observe that George Bush seemed like the Greatest Generation distilled into a single life story. The immense contributions in both wartime and peacetime. The stunning bravery paired with quiet humility. The belief that devoted service is not cause for special praise but simply each citizen’s duty.

The Greatest Generation achieved all-American accomplishments and exhibited all-American virtues. And it may just be that no one did that as fully as our forty-first president. Even in the ranks of his remarkable generation, he will stand out forever as one of its most especially remarkable sons. George Bush was the best — of the best.

Months after Pearl Harbor, our future president celebrated his eighteenth birthday and high school graduation by enlisting in the Navy. He was still a teenager when he got his wings. The youngest naval aviator. And he was only 20 on that fateful day in September 1944. He was piloting one of four Avenger bombers aiming to take out a Japanese radio tower. His plane was hit. The engine caught fire and the cockpit began filling with smoke.

But George Bush kept his steady hands on the controls. Rather than turn tail, he and his crew went right on with their mission. Only after he’d released the bombs — and successfully damaged his target — did he finally bail out over the Pacific. With a steady hand on the controls — more worried about doing his duty for others than about himself — George Bush stayed the course. According to one biographer, that was a key phrase for him. It concluded a list of core principles he once laid out in a letter to his mother. Here’s what he said: ‘Tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Be strong. Do your best. Try hard. Forgive. Stay the course.’ Year after year, post after post, George Bush stayed the course. And he helped his country do the same.

Through the fog of war in the Persian Gulf, when international order needed defending, America’s commander-in-chief led just as steadily as he had in that smoking cockpit almost 50 years earlier. And in between the Pacific and the presidency, he steered us straight through countless challenges as a Congressman, Ambassador to the United Nations, Envoy to China, CIA Director, and Vice President.

Serving capably in just one or two of these posts would ensure any citizen’s place in American history. But George Bush served in all of them — and always with excellence. On the home front, President Bush was a warrior for hope, optimism, and opportunity. As president he paved the way for education reform and signed legislation to give disabled Americans a better shot. Overseas, he was a talented diplomat and powerful champion for our interests.

It was on his watch that the Cold War finally ended. The free people of Europe threw off the shackles of communism. But President Bush knew America should not kick up our heels and enjoy a holiday from history. We fought and won the Gulf War in order to make something perfectly clear to allies and enemies alike: It had to be right, and not might, that filled the void.

We needed, he said, ‘a world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle.’ And his leadership moved us towards such a world. Through global change, domestic turmoil, and economic transformation— whether in jobs that he’d passionately sought out or in other assignments he dutifully accepted — George Bush kept us on course.

He wasn’t a dramatic or revolutionary leader. He didn’t advertise radical change. He never quite seemed at home in the spotlight. Instead, he offered humility and a servant’s heart. He aspired to govern his country well, preserve what was good, and improve things where possible. He wanted to keep us flying high and challenge us to fly a little higher. And he led us as he seemingly did everything in his life — with grace and kindness that seemed almost unbelievable, given all that he’d accomplished. Daring aviator, chief spy, wartime president. You’d think this must be a tough and gruff guy. But it is the man’s good cheer and generous spirit that stand out most of all in our national memory.

He was a prolific hand-writer of notes and letters. He freely changed his own plans to make life easier for his staff or Secret Service detail. I saw recently that, some years after his presidency, he couldn’t even bring himself to simply turn down a reporter’s request for an interview without crafting a warm, apologetic, full-page letter explaining his rationale. His decency and attentiveness to others was a credit to his upbringing. But it wasn’t only habit. It was principle.

This is a man who said this in his inaugural address: ‘In our hearts, we know what matters. We cannot hope only to leave our children a bigger car, a bigger bank account. We must hope to give them a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend; a loving parent; a citizen who leaves his home, his neighborhood, and town better than he found it.’ Looking beyond the day’s drama. Issuing a deep moral challenge. George Bush set the bar high. And his country listened, because we saw him meet those standards himself.

George Bush’s gifts were many. But some gifts were greater than others. George Bush and Barbara Pierce met at a Christmas party in 1941. He’d describe her to his mother as ‘the niftiest girl at the dance.’ Weeks after he returned from the war, they married. ‘I have climbed perhaps the highest mountain in the world,’ he would write much later, ‘but even that cannot hold a candle to being Barbara’s husband.’ Their love story would grow to include six children. It would span great joys and tragic loss. It weathered the challenges of the spotlight. In every chapter, George Bush served as comforter and counselor. He cared for loved ones with a dedication that never ceased to amaze them.

So much for the myth of the starched, Episcopalian New Englander. George Bush was no stoic. In fact, he developed his own teary-eyed reputation as a founding member of what the Bush family calls ‘The Bawl Brigade.’ That’s B – A – W -L. He was considerate, empathetic, and kind. And the Bushes passed on those values to their children. They nurtured a family of leaders whose contributions have enriched this country even more.

Few men so powerful would have even thought to call for a ‘kinder, gentler nation.’ Even fewer could have lived it themselves. His words lifted our spirits. His example inspired us. A quarter-century after George Bush left the Oval Office, his legacy continues to directly inspire not just ‘a thousand points of light,’ but millions of volunteers who serve others.

So, in war and peace… in public and in private… in high office and in family moments, George Bush stayed the course. The Greatest Generation, indeed. The grand heroism that saved our nation, the quiet diligence that built it up, and the basic goodness that sustains it — all in one. Today, the United States Senate joins the nation and the Bush family in mourning and prayer. But we are also joined in gratitude. We are thankful that God gave this country George Bush, and Barbara. Thankful that they built such a loving family. And thankful they may now be reunited, their great love story perfected in the light of His grace.

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell is the Senate Majority Leader.