‘Most Underrated President’ George H.W. Bush

President Bush's reaction to being called "overrated" says volumes about his modesty and sense of humor.

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COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS--I'm here for a board meeting at the George Bush Presidential Library and the George Bush School of Public Service, both of which are great testaments to President George H.W. Bush's lifelong commitment to public service.

Readers of the Washington Post recently voted President Bush 41 "The Most Underrated President" based on this nomination by a fellow reader named Andrew Miller:

George H.W. Bush: The country owes 41 a collective apology for voting him out of office. Our deficit ballooned under Ronald Reagan, and Bush was left holding the bag. Conservative purists butchered him when he tried to get the country's finances under control. Bush also wisely understood what driving to Baghdad in 1991 would have meant—a long, bloody quagmire. Don't believe me? Ask Bill Clinton, because he agrees.

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Clearly Mr. Miller touched a chord with a lot of readers, because 41 beat out Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Harry Truman, and even Barack Obama to win the title of Most Underrated President. The most praised presidents were not allowed in the voting: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan were all barred.

Of course my vote goes to 41, not only for the courage it took to sign the 1990 budget deal and his handling of the first Persian Gulf War, but also for his leadership on the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Points of Light movement. What a life of public service—from teenage war hero to member of Congress, U.N. ambassador, head of the Republican Party, director of the CIA, U.S. liaison to China, vice president, president, and now a point of light himself.  So he's got my vote, but let me know who your choice would be.

President Bush would tell you it's always better to be underrated than overrated. President Bush, back when he was ambassador to the United Nations in the 1970s, was chosen as one of "The 10 Most Overrated Men in New York" by New York magazine. ABC sportscaster Dick Schapp wrote the piece, and Ambassador Bush was named along with former Kennedy and Johnson national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, Cardinal Cooke of New York, New York Times publisher Arthur "Punch" Sulzberger, Jean Kennedy Smith's husband Steve Smith, New York Stock Exchange head Ralph DeNunzio, New York City Council President Sanford Garelik, NBC's Gabe Pressman, Broadway producer David Merrick, and Sen. Jacob Javits.

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What's interesting is that when Ambassador Bush found out he had been called "overrated," he did the only proper thing: he threw a party. He invited Schapp and all his fellow honorees to his official residence at the Waldorf in New York City for cocktails, addressing the invitations "Dear Mr. Overrated Bundy," and so on. He asked each to join him for the evening, along with a few friends and fellow diplomats "so we can have an international judgment as to who is indeed the most overrated of them all," according to the invitations. Everybody came except Javits, who said he didn't think it would be any fun. But Ambassador Bush stood on a chair at the party and did a dramatic reading of the article, adding a lot of comedic commentary about everyone, including himself. At one point the Russian ambassador was heard asking in a thick Russian accent, "What is this 'overrated'?"—clearly a concept unfamiliar to Moscow in those days. Mrs. Bush remembered the night as great fun when she told the story in her daughter Doro's book years later.

President Bush's reaction to being called "overrated" says volumes about his modesty and sense of humor which, ironically, are two of the reasons he is being called "underrated" today. As I said, it's always better to be underrated than overrated.