New York boasts seven Presidents, Ohio five, and Connecticut boasts George Bush: W was born here but George H.W. Bush was raised in Connecticut and he is our native son.
He grew up on Grove Lane in Greenwich, where his dad was moderator of the Greenwich Representative Town Meeting and was later U.S. senator. His son, 41, met his wife, Barbara, at a dance at The Round Hill Club in Greenwich and their first son, 43, was born in New Haven. 43 once said that no one would ever “out Texas” him; George H.W. Bush was not so shy about his Connecticut roots, and we will miss our native son, who was not only a true nutmegger but an underappreciated President.
Historians do not believe that a really good president can be a one-termer. Two-thirds of presidents do not serve a second term (due to death or defeat), but presidential historians rank only one of the top 10 presidents of all time to be a one-termer, James Polk. Polk may be a stumper in a game of Jeopardy, but he did double the size of the United States in four short years, and only ill-health forced him to step aside after one term. The bottom 10 are almost all one-termers, per a compilation of surveys by presidential historians.
Maybe it is time to add another one-termer to the top 10 list, George H.W. Bush. Presidential surveys put George Bush the Elder in the middle of the pack. He should be moving on up. We have had mostly foreign policy rookies in the White House over the last generation and America was well served having a decorated war hero, UN Ambassador, Ambassador to China, CIA Director, and Ronald Reagan’s VP in the White House as the Berlin Wall came crashing down and Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
Like Ike before him, President Bush was on firm footing in standing up to the militarists who, during Bush’s term, wanted to expand the scope of Operation Desert Storm and take out Saddam Hussein. As he wrote in his memoirs, “Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land.”
The collapse of the Soviet Union was the transformative event of the latter 20th century. Engaging Gorbachev and integrating the new Russia into the New World Order was politically controversial or seen as naïve at the time, but Bush had the credibility and the resolve to stand up to the doubters. In today’s topsy turvy world, we should be asking, what would George the Elder do?
On the domestic front, Bush sought out a 1990’s version of the grand bargain, a mix of tax increases and spending cuts. On the political front, Bush was vilified: “Read my lips, I lied,” screamed the New York Post. Pat Buchanan roughed him up in the primaries, Ross Perot finished him off in the general, and Bill Clinton was elected president. On Bush’s watch, the top income tax bracket was raised from 28 percent to 31 percent , federal spending started trending down, but the deficit only started down in Bush’s last year in office, eventually morphing into a surplus over the next eight years.
As Bill Clinton once opined, “it’s better to be strong and wrong than weak and right,” and Bush was unfairly challenged for being weak. “No time to go wobbly, George,” the Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher allegedly chided him before Desert Storm, Saturday Night Live’s Dana Carvey portrayed the President as hesitantly cautious and prudent, and Newsweek had a Bush cover story headlined, “The Wimp Factor.” What a cheap shot.
Twenty-year-old George H. W. Bush was the youngest naval aviator in World War II. Next to Iwo Jima in the Pacific was the tiny island Chichijima, and Bush’s squadron was sent to take out its radio tower. Although his plane was hit and the cockpit filling up with smoke, he hit his target and started flying out to sea. He told his crew to parachute to safety before he himself dove out onto the wing of the plane, pulled the ripcord too early, banging his head, and soon found himself bleeding in a tiny liferaft miles from shore. Armed Japanese vessels were headed his way when young Bush saw a periscope cut through the water, and he was rescued by the SS Finback just in time to avoid capture and torture on Chichijima.
“I hope my own children never have to fight a war, friends disappearing, lives being extinguished. It’s just not right,” he told journalist Paula Zahn, much later. “The glory of being a fighter pilot has certainly worn off.” His speechwriters could never get President Bush to talk much about the war; his enemies caricatured him as weak, but he was more often right on the big issues — and history will show that he was a really good one-term president who has never stopping serving his country.
As American politics takes a particularly rough turn, we will all miss and should always remember George H.W. Bush, Connecticut’s native Son, a kinder and gentler time, marked by courage and wisdom and service.
Quick Note: Ned Lamont of Greenwich is the governor elect for the State of Connecticut.
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