I’m dropping out of humor mode this week to reflect on the dual legacy President George Herbert Walker Bush left us.

Sometimes called “Pappy” by admirers in both parties, Bush’s first legacy was intended: bipartisan progress toward what he often called “a kinder and gentler America.” That wasn’t just a slogan. One might have expected George H.W. Bush — a World War II Navy torpedo bomber pilot, former CIA director and architect of the multinational coalition that pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait — to be a “shoot first, aim later” kind of guy. But his experiences and personal ethics taught him that true strength comes from unity, not division. It wasn’t a new or radical idea: Look at the back of a dollar bill, and read the banner in the eagle’s beak. 

President Bush knew that America would be stronger, not weaker, by being more united. We would waste less time in-fighting, and focus on the real priorities.

By and large, he practiced what he preached, which is the best we can hope for from any public servant. Nowhere was that more easily seen than by his signing the Americans with Disabilities Act, the most important, unifying piece of Civil Rights legislation since the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

More fully including people with disabilities in the economy and society in general came with costs: retrofitting buildings for better accessibility, and (alas) untold thousands of lawsuits to bring those who thought the ADA was a “suggestion” into compliance. Some lawsuits were crassly opportunistic; others long overdue. 

Another businessman in the White House might have vetoed the bill. President Bush proudly signed it.

G.H.W. Bush had a second, unintended legacy, one that he no doubt abhorred: triggering through his loss to Bill Clinton the backlash that broke, for the time being, any semblance of bipartisanship except in national emergencies. How could one of the best qualified people, on paper, to be president lose to a small-state governor with no national experience? Those three words on Clinton’s wall, “The economy, Stupid,” were the real cause.

Ever since, it has been a vicious cycle of revenge, retaliate, repeat. Neither party is blameless. We need leaders on both sides of the aisle who inspire, who raise the discourse above the level of the cesspool, and who admit the possibility of objective truth, as Bush did.  

It’s hard to think of President Bush without picturing Dana Carvey’s goofy caricature of him — the slurring of “Not gonna do it;” the clipped, oft-repeated phrases (“thousand points of light,” wouldn’t be prudent”). I think no one enjoyed the skewering more than Bush did, another sign of his strength, decency, and humility. 

louie@hmbreview.com hopes the ADA and Voting Rights Act are not weakened. Diminishing anyone’s Civil Rights debases everyone else’s. 

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