Chairman's Desk

Presidential successors put Bush Sr. in a new light

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on December 9, 2018.

Many believe that, in politics, your successor is your legacy.

Consider the straight-as-an-arrow Sunday school teacher Jimmy Carter after the Machiavellian Nixon years.
Or the steady, competent, experienced John Tory after the roller coaster term of Rob Ford.

Or more recently, Doug Ford’s approach to smaller government focused resolutely on every day family affordability after more than a decade of big, bold Liberal schemes.

But the state funeral of the 41st president of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush, earlier this week also reminded us that a politician’s successors can also create new frames, and new prisms, with which to view their predecessor.

As every living president, along with not just the entire American political establishment but leaders from around the world — even Charles, the future King of England was there — jammed into the magnificent Washington Cathedral there was an elephant jammed in with them.

And it wasn’t the elephant that serves as the GOP’s mascot and logo.

Rather, it was the astonishing divide between the 41st President and the 45th, President Donald Trump.

As our own former prime minister Brian Mulroney opened his tribute, Trump could be seen slumping in his pew, his arms aggressively crossed on his chest, and a surl on his lips. But he was alone.

The rest of the congregation was right with Mulroney as he offered, “I believe it will be said no occupant of the Oval Office was more courageous, more principled and more honourable than George Herbert Walker Bush.”

Mulroney went on to provide a tour de table of Bush’s accomplishments: The Gulf War, NAFTA, Clean Air Act, leadership that was “distinguished, resolute and brave.”

Others went on to describe the 41st president as the last of the “soldier statesmen,” as one of the last of the “greatest generation.”

And with each accolade, with each remembrance, the difference between George H.W. Bush’s leadership and that of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. became more painfully acute.

The sense of loss of decency in public life became clearer.

And with that how both Americans and the world thought about their former president began to change.

After all, despite all his successes, which were recounted this week, Bush lost the presidency in 1992, after just one term.

A young upstart named Bill Clinton seemed more in tune with the times. He reflected the optimism and freshness that was felt across the country. President Bush, on the other hand, while familiar and reliable — not unlike a panelled station wagon that had served dutifully — was more like yesterday’s news.

But Bush only knew one way to be president and he stood by it. He allowed journalists, historians and pundits to see him as a bumbling patrician.

Incredibly, the New York Times story that came to define his presidency reported Bush had been dumbfounded by a grocery store barcode scanner and didn’t know the price of a quart of milk.

The story, and its implication that he was woefully out of touch, had the ring of truth, and defined Bush for a generation.

But that sentiment dissipated significantly this week, as experts reflected on Bush’s presidency in the wake of his passing.

Instead of being a patrician, the pundits crowed about his gentle nature and impeccable manners. Instead of bumbling on policy, experts wrote of his pragmatism and cautiousness in a world that was teetering on chaos.

Some went so far as to say he was the best one term president since James K. Polk in the 19th century.

Today, Bush’s legacy stands in marked contrast with the one predicted in 1993, after his re-election loss.

By comparison, President Clinton, who had long enjoyed the highest approval ratings in the country, has suffered from historical consideration. His personal behaviour has clouded his policy successes and his approval ratings have dropped significantly.

It turns out how you lead, like how you live your life, actually matters. That what St. Francis taught is right: in consoling we are consoled, in giving we receive, and in pardoning we are pardoned.

And that’s why I don’t think it is random that the Bush family motto is, “et ius illud,” which when translated to English means, “do the right thing.”

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt