Having worked for the man I can tell you that George H.W. Bush is no pushover. When Manuel Noriega rattled his swords and waged his drug war against the USA, Bush descended on Panama like a thunderstorm, without warning, bringing the villain back in chains. When Saddam Hussein invaded his neighbor, Bush organized the entire world against him. It was an unprecedented moment. “This shall not stand,” Bush said. And it didn’t. Bush, not Reagan, was the man who stood watch over the collapse of the Soviet Union. And many forget that the Berlin Wall came down when he was in the White House. Even so, what endures from those who know him personally and from those who have studied the presidency, is that George H.W. Bush may be the nicest man to ever sit in the Oval Office.
Presidents, like all leaders, are often known for their ruthlessness. “A great Prime Minister,” Gladstone once mused, “must be a good butcher.” Bush, not Theodore Roosevelt, was the president who walked softly and carried a big stick.
Presidential power within a family sometimes reaches tragic proportions. Accustomed to fawning subordinates at work, the presidents often expect the family to likewise cater to their egos at home. John Quincy Adams, our sixth president, told his namesake and son, John Adams II, that he would not attend his Harvard graduation unless the boy worked his way into the top five graduating students. When the son prevailed the father moved the goal posts. If the boy was not number one, he said, he still wouldn’t come. The son, John Adams II, got drunk and was expelled from Harvard.
Abraham Lincoln had a mean, stubborn streak that left him estranged from both his father and his first born son. He refused to attend his father’s funeral. Lincoln oversaw the massive slaughter of a generation of young men. More Americans died in the Civil War than in all other modern wars combined.
Theodore Roosevelt invaded Columbia and invented Panama. It was an illegal, arguably immoral war, but it got us the Panama Canal. Roosevelt once said, “Every generation of young manhood should experience a war.” It Hitler were to say such a thing we would rightly rebuke it. Theodore Roosevelt only makes us chuckle.
Franklin D. Roosevelt interned thousands of Japanese families living in the USA during World War Two. And he too could be quite tough on his own family. When son, Jimmy Roosevelt, complained to his mother that he could never talk to his father she suggested he get an appointment. “That’s what I do,” she said.
Lyndon Johnson could be cruel to staffers and rivals alike, even physically intimidating them. Richard Nixon had his blacklist. New audiotapes show John Kennedy viciously excoriating subordinates.
Sexual abuse seems to be a rite of passage for men of power. Again, FDR comes to mind. Missy LeHand faithfully served him for years, living with him alone when he was forgotten, even crawling in the mud on the beaches of Florida with him as he tried to affect a quack homeopathic cure for his polio. Some of the president’s sons remember her, wearing a nightgown, sitting on his lap, in the private quarters of the White House. But when she, herself, had a stroke and developed a paralysis, he threw her out and took a new “friend.” John Kennedy’s sexual abuse of staff and friends has become legendary.
Sadly, there is no better understanding of the leadership skill of George H.W. Bush than a comparison of the two Gulf Wars. George H.W. Bush defeated Saddam Hussein but left him in place. His son, Bush the younger, conquered Iraq and stayed until both Saddam Hussein and his two sons were killed.
In the first Gulf War many people often asked, “Why didn’t the president finish it off? Why didn’t he take Baghdad?” It is not very often that we can see what would have happened if things had been done differently. But now we can. If Bush, Sr. had taken complete control of Iraq and deposed or killed Saddam Hussein, the whole Sunni-Shia balance of power in the Middle East would have collapsed. The region would have erupted into bloodshed. Terrorism would have proliferated. Radical Islam would have toppled established governments. Christian communities, who trace their lineage back to the time of the Apostles would have been butchered, their centuries old churches burnt to the ground. We know it would have happened because it is exactly what happened when his son, President George W. Bush, decided to give it a try.
Now, we know the genius and the patient calculation of George H. W. Bush and the gifts he brought to the presidency. He is nice. But it has a purpose.