It is tempting to dismiss the presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush as a fast-moving blip across the American political stage.
“Bracketed by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton,” The New York Times once wrote, Bush’s single term “can seem a little like a sorbet palate cleanser between two rich, complicated, high-calorie dishes.”
The real story is considerably more complicated.
While Bush — who died Friday in Houston at age 94, the longest-living former president in U.S. history — served only four years between the reigns of two juggernauts, he was in fact a president of unusual courage and insight.
Start with Bush’s controversial decision not to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 1991 after coalition forces, led by the United States, drove the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. Bush reasoned that “we would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq.”
It fell to his son, President George W. Bush, to prove the wisdom of that call 12 years later with his own invasion of Iraq and its long-troubled aftermath.
Or consider the elder Bush’s leadership in facing the fiscal abyss of 1990, when he was willing to do something that’s all but unheard of today: He was willing to put his presidency on the line by violating his famous 1988 “read my lips” pledge and agreeing to raise taxes.
This was not a decision made in weakness. It was made because Bush held the traditional Republican belief that federal deficits were bad for the economy and that the country couldn’t mount an energetic climb from recession until it reduced what it owed.
In the end, Bush was correct. But unfortunately for him, he was not in office to enjoy the long boom that followed. The tax deal, and the third-party candidacy of H. Ross Perot in 1992, cost him a second term.
But if Americans didn’t applaud his courage then, we should honor it now. In an age of ceaseless political acrimony, Bush’s willingness to compromise on the big issues and to lead are virtues in short supply.
The most recent presidential campaign was difficult for the genteel Bush. He saw his son, Jeb, and other Republican contenders ridiculed by eventual winner Donald Trump, who also savaged the presidential record of another son, George W. Bush. The elder Bush criticized Trump’s behavior and questioned his leadership ability.
But the strongest counterpoint George H.W. Bush offered to the current president was his own long record of service to his country — as a Navy pilot in World War II, a member of the House of Representatives, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, director of Central Intelligence, and vice president under Reagan.
Bush’s passing followed closely that of Barbara Bush, his beloved wife for 73 years, who died April 17. His heartbroken devotion to her touched the nation.
He leaves a legacy of leadership and loyalty we hope others will try to meet.
By the Newsday Editorial Board.