When George H.W. Bush died Friday at the age of 94, the country lost a former president, lawmaker, CIA director, UN ambassador and war hero – as well as a good and decent man, according to colleagues and former opponents from across the political spectrum.
“At the close of this truly great American life, let us honor his legacy by following his example of patriotism, public service, and bipartisan problem-solving,” said U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, who began his government career in the Bush White House.
Bush, who was 94, served one term as the 41st president, from 1989 until January of 1993. He had been suffering from a form of Parkinson’s Disease. He died just seven months after the death of his wife, Barbara. They were the longest-married couple in presidential history at 73 years.
George and Barbara had family ties to Ohio. George’s father was born in Ohio, and Barbara’s parents met at Miami University. Bush came to the Miami Valley multiple times throughout his career, receiving an honorary degree in 1988 from Central State University.
In 1992, Bush attended the 42nd annual Brookville Community Picnic. Former Montgomery County GOP chair Gregory Gantt was a party volunteer at the time tasked with accompanying the president and helping the motorcade with directions. He was behind Bush when they went through the barbecue line at the picnic.
“It comes time to pay, and the guy behind me says, ‘Oh no, Mr. President, you don’t need to pay.’ And (Bush) reached into his wallet and pulled out 10 bucks and paid for his own meal,” Gantt said. “I didn’t think the president carried a wallet around and had money.”
President Donald Trump ordered flags lowered at the White House, and likewise Gov. John Kasich did so at the statehouse. Trump, Kasich and others issued statements referencing Bush’s “thousand points of light” initiative, supporting the work of local volunteerism.
“President Bush said that the definition of a successful life was in serving others, and he urged Americans to reach out to those in need as part of a ‘thousand points of light,’” said Ohio governor-elect Mike DeWine.
DeWine said Bush, who lost his daughter, Robin, to cancer when she was a child, called and offered his condolences when the DeWine’s daughter Becky died in a 1993 car crash.
DeWine said that during another Bush visit to Ohio DeWine’s family posed for a picture with him at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. While the group was posing, Bush noticed that DeWine’s son Brian had the flap of his jacket pocket turned out. “Ever the father, he helped him fix it before the picture was taken,” DeWine recalled.
Retired U.S. Rep. Dave Hobson began his first term representing the Springfield area in 1991, halfway through Bush’s presidency. Both houses of Congress were controlled by Democrats. Hobson, a Republican, said Bush was respected for his integrity even by political foes.
“Even the people who opposed him, and opposed him strongly on policy and stuff, still respected him as a person, and I’m hoping at some point we can get back to that in politics,” Hobson said.
Bush’s ability to build coalitions was displayed in the first Gulf War, when he assembled an international alliance to drive Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. The war earned Bush a spike in public popularity, but wasn’t enough to win him a second term in office. Amid a recession that forced a tax increase that Bush had vowed never to do, he lost his re-election bid to Bill Clinton.
Tim Miller, former statehouse bureau chief for the Dayton Daily News and longtime political reporter, said Bush also suffered from a perception that he wasn’t a ‘regular guy.’
“Which was totally unfair, given his military career. He just had difficulty connecting to the average person. He just seemed a little aloof,” Miller said. (Bush’s vice president) Dan Quayle admitted to Miller at the Circleville pumpkin festival that both he and Bush “are kind of seen as silver spoon kind of people.”
Bush’s presidency capped an accomplished career in public service that spanned the Cold War. He also launched a political dynasty with his son George W. Bush elected president after Clinton, and other son Jeb Bush serving as governor of Florida and presidential front-runner early in the 2016 election before losing the GOP primary to Trump.
Locally, though, George H.W. Bush will be most remembered for what Hobson called his “decency and character.”
Hobson and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, noted that Bush was part of the fading Greatest Generation.
“Like most of the WWII generation, and our veterans today, President George H.W. Bush never bragged about his military record,” Brown said. “He simply dedicated his life to service, and we are all grateful for his commitment to our country.”