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Lessons from George HW Bush

  • Published at 06:14 pm December 4th, 2018
George HW Bush
May his soul rest in peace REUTERS

A man of many achievements

The 41st president of the United States, George HW Bush, died on December 1, 2018. 

What is notable about George HW Bush is his character -- a man of great courage and humility who had been raised to focus his attention and interest on others, rather than himself. It is a lesson that many can benefit from following.

As one looks at the recent group of American political leaders, the meaning of character stands out sharply. Most presidents since John Kennedy have avoided military service often by dubious means such as Trump, George Bush (who joined the National Guard and avoided being sent to Vietnam), and Clinton.   

Most have been braggarts announcing to all how great they are, most of the time without any basis for so doing. Several have been sexual predators. All have had an exaggerated estimate of their own abilities -- an appalling litany of inadequate men who are destroying the US with their immoral behaviour and self-serving enrichment. 

I am sure that they feel shame as they contrast their petty lives with GHW Bush.

George HW Bush was a different type of man. Without any doubt the best human being to occupy the presidency since Eisenhower. Not the best politician nor the best speaker; but for the simple traits of decency and courage, the others are pygmies by comparison.

GHW Bush has a long happy marriage of 73 years, his wife Barbara had died a few months ago -- they were old-fashioned people. Their children could not believe Barbara’s statement that GHW was the only man she had kissed. In an age, where the sexual coupling is not much more than drinking a cup of coffee it is an astounding comment. 

He was a man of many achievements but I point to three things he did for three countries.

First, when Kuwait was attacked and occupied by Iraq GHW assembled many nations, including Bangladesh, to force the Iraqis to leave and free Kuwait.

He stopped all of these armies from going on to Baghdad to rid the world of Saddam, stating that the United Nations has authorized the use of force to free Kuwait, not overthrow the government of Iraq.  

This is probably the single most important action in support of the UN since its founding, making clear to all that the instructions of the UN must be followed. What a contrast with the current bellowing from the White House.

Second, after the Kuwait War in April 1991, Cyclone Marian struck Chittagong area with a six-meter storm surge resulting in the deaths of 138,000 persons, millions displaced, and many injured. Damage is estimated at more than $6bn in 2018 dollars.  

American military units headed home from the Kuwait War were directed by GHW to divert to Bangladesh to render assistance under the direction of the Bangladesh government.

These units were supplemented with additional helicopters sent from Hawaii. The Americans called this “Operation Sea Angel.” The helicopters and the hovercraft sent were able to deliver food, water, and medical supplies as directed by the Bangladesh government. 

An estimated 200,000 lives were saved from these operations. Retired Squadron Leader ASM Abdul Matin, at that time a young helicopter pilot, who flew many missions during that month, told me of the tremendous impact of the joint efforts of the two governments to supply the millions who were isolated by the storm. He said: “It led to an increased cooperation and skill development of both nations’ military.”

Third, the Soviet Union collapsed and Eastern Europe under the jackboot of the Russians since 1945, was free. What should become of East Germany? The British, USSR, and the French were against unification, fearing that Europe would be dominated by a larger Germany.  

GHW worked closely with Chancellor Kohl to bring about German unification and calm America’s European allies to accept this as well as gaining the USSR’s acceptance for unified Germany to be a member of NATO. This was the key decision in establishing freedom for the millions in Eastern Europe. GHW never bragged about this. 

But there is no doubt about his leadership; if any man can claim credit for the hundreds of millions of men and women in Eastern Europe now living in freedom it is GHW Bush.  

His advisers wanted him to go to Berlin to participate in the tearing down of the Berlin Wall the great symbol of totalitarian repression. GHW refused, stating that the event was for the German people to celebrate. 

GHW Bush was a man of principle. When he realized that the budget deficit of the US was getting out of control he went back on his campaign promises and increased taxes. It was the right thing to do and it was an important factor in his losing the election for a second term. No one has shown much courage on this matter since then.  

His humility and basic decency have largely flown away from American politics where screaming and shouting is now the accepted way. Among those that worked closely with him, he was invariably loyal.

He listened carefully to his advisers and worked to master the complex details of governing the US. He worked diligently to pass the first comprehensive legislation dealing with the disabled. He achieved bipartisan support for laws to improve the environmental standards for water and air.

He joined the navy out of high school and flew more than 60 combat missions, being shot down once. He refused to write a book about himself. All other presidents since WWII have done so and profited handsomely, but GHW said to leave it to the historians to sort out what happened.  

There are some lessons for young men and women. Live with integrity; accept what you can earn, and avoid corruption to get more; stand up for your country, but do not expect to be rewarded. Do not seek public credit for what you achieve.

Be loyal to those that work for you. Find the man or woman that is your true love and never part. 

Forrest Cookson is an American Economist.