Elephants in the Room

Five Vital Lessons From George H.W. Bush

From being wary about the Middle East to protecting America’s intelligence services, the former president was far more prescient than he’s often given credit for.

George Bush laughs with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on Sept. 9, 1990 after their first meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland. (Mike Sargent/AFP/Getty Images)
George Bush laughs with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on Sept. 9, 1990 after their first meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland. (Mike Sargent/AFP/Getty Images)

It is tempting to summarize someone’s life in a short phrase, as in “brought the Cold War to an end” for the late President George H.W. Bush, yet there is so much more we would be wise to learn from the tenets of leadership he modeled. As his latest successor in the role of vice president hints at a new Cold War, this time with China, the lessons of America’s 41st president are all the more prescient.

The first lesson from the life of Bush is that for nations or individuals, with great blessings comes great responsibility. The son of a United States senator of privileged background, Bush could have avoided World War II or sought service in a safe role. Instead, at age 18 he volunteered to be a Navy pilot and was eventually shot down in combat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. During his public service, Bush never backed away from the belief that as the most blessed nation the world has ever known, the United States has an obligation to provide world leadership, not for its own sake, but for the benefit of all.

During a visit to their home in Kennebunkport, Maine, my wife, Debbie, and I witnessed President Bush personally demonstrating this ethos. At the event hosting key supporters, when the line for beverages got too long, the president got behind the counter to help the server. His actions made clear his belief that to whom much is given, much is required.

Bush’s second life lesson is that the world order the United States painstakingly built after the war in which he fought must be defended. That was the point of the Cold War. The Soviet Union challenged the global order, and the United States under Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bush led the response to defend it. While Bush as chief envoy to Beijing and throughout his life of service practiced active engagement with China, that was during a period of reformist leaders like Deng Xiaoping. Under President Xi Jinping, China is more aggressively defying established rules of law in a like manner to the Soviets. The life lessons of America’s 41st president would suggest that meeting this challenge must be its central foreign-policy focus.

The third lesson of the first President Bush is that it is essential for the United States to have limited objectives in the Middle East, as he exhibited during the Gulf War. Many criticized him for not finishing the job in Iraq. While his son, with my support, sought more aggressively to bring some democratic framework to the region, the return on America’s investment remains uncertain. With preserving the world order against challenge from China as America’s first priority globally, it must not inordinately drain its strength in a region prone to prolonged conflict.

The importance of preserving America’s intelligence strength is the fourth lesson we can take from Bush. He assumed leadership of the CIA when it had been rocked by scandal. With today’s increasing cyberthreats, robust intelligence is even more essential. Doing clandestine work is often a thankless task. Your successes in preventing threats are rarely celebrated. This makes attacks on U.S. intelligence services especially corrosive to preserving their dedication to defend Americans. Bush understood this, saying, “It has been said that patriotism is not a frenzied burst of emotion, but rather the quiet and steady dedication of a lifetime. To me, this sums up CIA.”

Bush’s fifth lesson is that the United States is stronger in unison with its allies, rather than in conflict with them. It was his administration, led by Carla Hills, that negotiated the North America Free Trade Agreement for which President Bill Clinton received congressional approval and signed. Both presidents would appreciate that in America’s matchup against China today, the United States stands taller as North America and preserving continental unity is of first importance. Bush also assembled a wide coalition of nations to achieve quick success in the Gulf War. America’s only chance of withstanding today’s onslaught against the rule of law that secures its peace is by strengthening world order in unison with a growing list of nations it calls allies.

With more authoritarian leaders among the great powers than anytime during my lifetime, these are dangerous times, making heeding the lessons of America’s 41st president more urgent. Attending the commissioning of the aircraft carrier that bears his name, I will never forget that as Bush approached the podium to speak, he used a cane. As people rose in applause, he handed off his cane to the sitting president who had just introduced him. Watching President George W. Bush handling this seemingly unexpected task at an inconvenient time as he too was clapping for his father, a cane hanging from his arm as he did so, is seared in my memory. I thought to myself, who else would be a more appropriate person for such an awkward assignment than your son?

Upon his death, the Navy tweeted simply, “Fair winds and following seas, Sir. We have the watch.” As Bush the elder goes to meet his Father, let us never forget his primary lesson—what nation would be a more appropriate to lead the world, however unexpected, inconvenient or awkward the task entails, than the United States of America? It must indeed, as the Navy says, have the watch.

Mark R. Kennedy is president of the University of North Dakota, author of "Shapeholders: Business Success in the Age of Activism," a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, was senior vice president and treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's), was a member of the Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiation under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and led George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

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