The Bush Legacy: The Business is Personal

George H.W. Bush's country club charm won him America's praise.

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By Jamie Stiehm, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Colleague Mary Kate Cary sent a black and white bouquet of words George Herbert Walker Bush's way this week, praising President Obama for speaking at the former president's library to honor his charitable initiative, A Thousand Points of Light, and salute his public service. She said she had worked for the elder Bush and loved him very much.

The personal element is what caught my eye, as that lies at the heart of the Bush way of doing business. Everything is personal if your name is George Bush, father or son. The loyalty gene runs deep in this American dynasty, which has cost our country dearly.

Sure, there are millions of Americans who love or like the 41st president very much. The Connecticut Yankee was born and bred to be genial, to write thank you notes, to join the secret elite club at Yale, to captain the baseball team, to get the girl from Greenwich, and to become a true war hero. All that was prelude.

As the elder Bush, nicknamed Poppy, made a fortune in Texas, he also put a foot in the political ring and won election to Congress. He never did get elected to the Senate, his father Prescott's former province.

But that turned out not to matter much, as Bush hopskotched from one appointment to another to build a brilliant political resume: ambassador to China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and more. Tapped on the shoulder time after time, he rose high in party politics without having his upper-crust ways vetted by voters. But he amassed more than a thousand points of light in personal friends and supporters.

Ultimately, he became the classic "understudy" vice president, but the rub was that Ronald Reagan mastered the presidency as performance art. Ascending to president, Bush never learned his lines well—for he never fully understood the power of words or ideas in politics. Public speaking was never a pleasure to him; his utterances often seemed forced and so did not sway commoners his way. If he could have met the electorate individually in small settings, his warmth and charm would have been formidable assets.

In foreign policy and diplomacy, he thought of other world leaders as belonging to the same country club. To be fair, he won over a large number in building a multinational coalition to strike back at Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in the first Gulf War.

As for the Berlin Wall coming down and the end of the Cold War, let's leave that to scholars and experts. To me, they were great gifts to Bush early in his term, but he underplayed them because of a genteel modesty. His steely mother had a prohibition against the "great I am."

Then we come to the firstborn son. George W. Bush once explained his invasion of Iraq in starkly personal terms: that Saddam Hussein's agents "tried to kill my Dad." They are reportedly not close, but father and son rule a fierce tribe that plays hard to win. Just ask Al Gore or Colin Powell.

The 43rd president regarded his father as an old school gentleman, polished at pleasantries, while he was a warrior—or "a war president." He rejected his father's awkward offer to help with some adult supervision at the White House when the Iraq war broke out six or seven years ago. The shambles in its wake: that is the inheritance this pair in primogeniture left to us.

One last word for George H.W. Bush: Next to his kingly son, he looks like a prince.

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    Bush, George H.W.
    • Jamie Stiehm

      Jamie Stiehm is a weekly Creators Syndicate columnist. Her op-eds on politics, culture, and history have appeared in newspapers across the nation, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. She previously worked as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun and The Hill. Jamie's first journalism job was as an assignment editor at the CBS News bureau in London.

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