Peter Feaver remembers Georg H W Bush
A group of Foreign Policy's most seasoned authored gathered to remember the life and times of George H. W. Bush. Peter Feaver, who is a longstanding contributing author, offered his reflection, having worked closely in two other Presidents' cabinets.
I did not work in the George H.W. Bush administration, but when I reflect on his life of service, three remembrances loom large. First, he was mocked and vilified by partisan elites all out of proportion to any real defects—and he bore it with greater grace and decency than any other president in our modern era. My students today are surprised when they learn about the hyperbolic critiques leveled at Bush in the heat of the 1992 presidential campaign. Of course, politics ain’t beanbag, and he occasionally threw a sharp elbow himself. But comparison and contrast with our current era is obvious and instructive. I cannot help but wonder if the overdone critique of Bush (and, for that matter Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush) actually paved the way for the politics of President Donald Trump: If the left is going to turn someone as decent as George H.W. Bush into a grotesque caricature, why not embrace the caricature and go with someone who can dish it out in equal measure?
Second, I served in the White House early in the Bill Clinton administration, when memories of that campaign were still fresh. I was a junior staffer on an all-hands-on-deck event that brought back multiple dignitaries, including former President Bush (and others)—I think it was probably the famous Yasser Arafat-Yitzhak Rabin handshake event on the South Lawn on Sept. 11, 1993. One of my colleagues was staffing Bush, basically shepherding him through various wickets and serving as a gofer; I was staffing the gofer. As the day unfolded, it was clear how genuine and warm was the affection of all the nonpolitical White House staff for Bush—and how easily it was reciprocated in kind. He called out several of the stewards by name and had the kind of brief pull-aside moments of connection that were the “selfies” of that era. This was at a time when there were multiple reports of friction between the Clintons and the staff, and the contrast really struck me and my colleague.
Third, nowadays it is fashionable to pretend that there is nothing good to be said about the foreign-policy elite establishment. Trump is president today because he effectively sold this canard to a sufficient portion of the electorate. Yet Bush is a powerful reminder that the quintessentially establishment virtues of preparation, experience, wisdom, attention to detail, attention to due process, and prudence are especially conducive to good foreign policy. No president in the modern era embodied them more than Bush did. And judging from the encomia offered on his behalf in recent days, no president in modern memory has risen further in the popular imagination from the caricature his political opponents painted in the day than has President George H.W. Bush—precisely, I would argue, because of those establishment virtues. Of course, Bush did not have a perfect record in foreign policy, but history has been kind to him and will likely be kinder still as time goes by.