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The Preeminence of Prudence

Washington forgives many things, from Oval Office indiscretions to executive abuses. But neither laughter nor defeat makes the pardonable cut, and George H.W. Bush has endured both, in each case for precisely the quality that most commends him: prudence. It has consequently taken more than two decades since his departure from the White House in 1993, and perhaps the lack of that quality in some of the intervening period, for history to begin to appreciate the elder Bush. 41, the new book by his son and successor George W. Bush, will help.

This is not an objective work of biography and is not supposed to be. Bush 43 disclaims any such intent from the beginning. It arose when David McCullough’s daughter remarked how much her father, in writing his John Adams opus, regretted not having a biographical treatment of him by his son John Quincy.

There is not a deeply rooted “presidential” perspective in this book. It is less 43’s account of 41, which might have had its value, than a son’s tribute to his father, which certainly has its virtues. It is alternately touching and charming. Bush 41 comes off mostly as thoroughly decent—the kind of Congressman who votes for the Fair Housing Act while representing a district that was 90 percent white in 1968 Texas, and the kind of 89-year-old elder statesman who shaves his head in solidarity when he discovers the two-year-old daughter of a Secret Service agent is undergoing chemotherapy.

The word for this is class. Humility ennobles it. Consider, for example, “my father’s quiet faith,” expressed in moments of quiet prayer:

He was a religious man, but he was not comfortable espousing his faith in the public square. I was less restrained. At a Republican presidential debate in late 1999, the moderator asked the candidates which philosopher we most identified with. I said, “Christ, because he changed my heart.” It was not a scripted answer; I just blurted out the truth. Dad called shortly after the debate, as he often did. “Good job, son,” he said. We discussed some of the key moments. Then he said, “I don’t think that answer on Jesus will hurt you too much.”

But there is something more to Bush 41, and it is a political virtue that has vanished from the landscape: the quality of judgment leavened by experience—prudence.  Dana Carvey lampooned him for it on Saturday Night Live (Bush—again, class—reacted by inviting Carvey to the White House to entertain his dejected staff after his 1992 defeat.)

Prudence is a repeated theme of this narrative, even if the author does not specifically identify it. Bush was plenty tough on communism but understood the need to allow the dissolution of the Soviet Union on terms with which the Soviet regime could cope without detonating. As the Berlin Wall fell, he declined triumphalism:

Dad faced enormous pressure to celebrate. Democrats in Congress urged him to go to Berlin. Journalists, eager for a dramatic story, demanded to know why he wasn’t showing more emotion. . . . [But] he knew the best way to achieve results was to think about the situation from the other person’s perspective. Freedom had a better chance to succeed in Central and Eastern Europe if he did not provoke the Soviets to intervene in the budding revolutions.

Similarly, he declined to pursue the Gulf War to Baghdad once the stated mission of expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait was achieved. “Congress and the Coalition had signed on to liberate Kuwait. That was the mission. It was achieved. It was time to bring the troops home.” Saddam’s brutal repression of rebels ensued, leading to pressure on Bush to intervene. “Dad’s response has always been that he had no mandate from Congress or from our international partners to intervene militarily.” A President restraining himself because he wields power but lacks authority: Imagine!

Bush 41 was similarly denounced for his cautious response to the death throes of the Soviet Union, including his suggestion—ridiculed as “Chicken Kiev”—that Ukraine transition gradually to democracy, another prudent and prophetic act. So was the 1990 budget deal that, as much as any later policy, deserves credit for the decade’s surpluses.

Those who admire this quality of prudence will naturally turn to Bush’s biography to ask how it might be cultivated. One suggestion is its inseparability from character. Bush repeatedly rejects the privilege available to him. He joined the Navy out of high school against his father’s wishes. He handled the downing of his plane over the Pacific with consummate skill, then eluded capture by the Japanese by paddling furiously against the ocean currents in a life raft. We get a clear sense of Bush’s private character in his reaction to the deaths of two of his crew mates:

He stayed in touch with both of their families for decades. When he was elected President more than forty years after the crash, he invited [their] sisters for a private visit in the White House. During [an] interview with Jenna [Bush] on his ninetieth birthday, almost seventy years after the shoot-down, she asked whether he still thought about his crewmates.

“I think about them all the time,” he said.

He thought relentlessly, too, about another wrenching loss: that of his three-year-old daughter Robin to leukemia. Some of her last words to her father—“I love you more than tongue can tell”—reappear in Bush 41’s words to his son upon the start of the Iraq war in 2003.

After World War II, Bush rejected offers to exploit his parents’ Wall Street connections to obtain a plum position, instead moving his young family—including the plucky Barbara Pierce Bush (“Well I didn’t marry you, did I?” she replies when Prescott Bush jokingly inquires whether he gave her permission to smoke)—to West Texas for a humble start as an equipment clerk in the oil business.

He reacted to adversity—such as his defeats for the Senate in 1964 and 1970—with determination and grace. Offered his choice of ambassadorships in the Ford administration, Bush chose an outpost that did not then carry that title: American representative to China. “Like West Texas, China represented the frontier. . . .” In October 1992, with defeat looming, he wrote in his diary, “If we should lose, there’s great happiness over the horizon—but it will be a very painful process—not for losing but for letting people down.”

The prudence Bush displayed in office reflects the intersection of this character with a diversity of experience stretching from the West Texas oil fields to Congress to the United Nations and CIA. Neither experience nor character, one suspects from this narrative, could alone have forged Bush’s prudence.

There are limits to this volume, as there must be in a son’s paean to his father. Bush 41 does not make any mistakes in this telling. (Former Senator John Tower, for example—Bush’s ill-fated nominee for Defense Secretary—was the victim of “innuendo,” which glosses over legitimate questions about his temperament.) Bush 43’s occasional digressions to talk about his own policies—such as his pages-long apologia for his Gulf war while talking about Bush 41’s—often feel often misplaced and sometimes feel ill-suited to his father’s example.

There are limits, too, to prudence even as Bush 41 practiced it. It generally takes the form of caution, which is not the whole of what prudence means. Indeed, the international diplomacy of personal friendships that Bush 43 so praises seems singularly incautious, and it may have impeded Bush 41’s capacity to give a sense of definition to the Cold War’s denouement. To consider that moment “from the other person’s perspective”—which is to say Gorbachev’s—is to make the unshackling of peoples into a personal encounter between persons. The rapport of world leaders can seem to outshine the aspirations of the people they govern.

Still, the years since, including those over which the author of this book presided, serve as a reminder that caution is not the worst of political sins. Nor is defeat the worst of political fates. George H.W. Bush has made the most of both. History will appreciate him for it, and historians will appreciate 41 for contributing to their understanding of the man.

Reader Discussion

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on January 23, 2015 at 16:31:25 pm

“I love you more than tongue can tell”

Who talks like that? I associate the phrase with Tolkien ("Lúthien Tinúviel/more fair than Mortal tongue can tell...."), but it may have been popularized in a hymn. So I looked into it.

The first citation Google finds to “more than tongue can tell” appears in 1760, but I can’t find the source.

By 1772, we have The Lady's Magazine Or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex: Appropriated Solely to Their Use and Amusement, Volume 3, Baldwin, Cradock & Joy, 1772, p. 40:

Then why this griss [greif?]?— these gushing tears !
And why this riling sigh ?
Forbear the with, that brings him back
To feast the longing eye.
For oh! transcendent joys are his !
They’re more than tongue can tell ;
And, should my muse attempt the task ,
They’d all her pow’r exed ! [exceed?]
E L I Z A.”

By 1826, we have Elegant Extracts, Or, Useful and Entertaining Passages, from the Best English Authors and Translations: Principally Designed for the Use of Young Persons, Volume 6, p. 331:

§126. Poor Peggy. DIBDIN. [the author?]
Poor Peggy lov’d a soldier lad
More, far more, than tongue can tell ye ;
Yet was her tender bosom sad
Whene’er she heard the loud reveille.
The fifes were screech-owls to her ears,
The drums like thunder seem'd to rattle ;
Ah ! too prophetic were her fears,
They call'd him from [the gory battle?]

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nobody.really
on January 23, 2015 at 18:41:25 pm

“I love you more than tongue can tell”

Who talks like that?

Quite the literate 3 year old, wouldn't you say?
Rather sad, however!

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gabe
on January 25, 2015 at 22:35:54 pm

[…] The Preeminence of Prudence […]

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Our Hereditary Candidates and Campaign Finance Regulation - Freedom's Floodgates
on December 02, 2018 at 10:43:29 am

We now are under the presidency of someone who is incapable of stringing together a coherent thought in to a sentence and GHWB is being scrutinized for his speech? No wonder he said "I love the uneducated."

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Bob Manderville
on December 02, 2018 at 12:28:47 pm

Don't you Never Trumpers ever stop.

Why mar the sentiment(s) artfully crafted by Weiner and transform it into just another opportunity to bash Trump.

There will most assuredly be other occasions to critique Trumps grammatical skills. On this we agree; it is not quite so apparent that there will be credible opportunities to critique his substantive policies.

"At long last, Sir, have you no sense of shame?"

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gabe
on December 02, 2018 at 13:13:05 pm

Gabe;

A noble attempt to defend the indefensible however your inquiry into lack of shame is misdirected on a few levels all of which is self inflicted. What is needed to be asked is Trump's intellectual buffoonery scrutinized by you as closely as you have scrutinized a three year olds comment? A three year old. "Have YOU no shame sir?"

The only thing "RATHER SAD" is that we know the answer is negative.

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Bob Manderville
on December 02, 2018 at 14:26:32 pm

No, Bob:

The difference is that I made my jocular comment PRIOR to the death of G.H.W. Bush. Kindly check the date of the comment.

My sole point is that we ought not to use the death of , in this instance, a rather decent and courageous human being, as an opportunity to impugn the living.
There will doubtless be ample opportunities for doing so.

If you are unable to grasp this, then you have allowed your ideological / style preferences to corrupt / distort your sense of decency.

goodbye

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gabe
on December 02, 2018 at 14:35:30 pm

Gabe;

I didn't realize this was a reprint of a past article. After your last post I stand corrected...my apologies.

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Bob Manderville
on December 02, 2018 at 14:59:11 pm

Hey, no problem-o.

funny thing is when I first saw the post, I, too, thought it was new one.
Then to my surprise, I noticed a comment from "gabe" which I could not recall. I thought perhaps someone had once again "hacked" my name.

Then I saw the date.

So I can understand the confusion.

seeya - now back to football and caring for my recently 'hip-replaced" wife.

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gabe
on December 02, 2018 at 16:51:22 pm

Poppy Bush, the last patrician WASP and first overtly globalist president. Perhaps he’ll get a star on the Davos sidewalk of fame.

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EK
on December 03, 2018 at 09:18:22 am

Oh Gawd, something new and unimportant for the nation's morons to obsess about!

But Gabe's got a point, "... (W)e ought not to use the death of... a rather (inarguably) decent and (modestly) courageous human being, as an opportunity to impugn the living.
There will doubtless be ample opportunities for doing so."

Yet, the spectacle we are seeing now is precisely the display of such "ample opportunities," and I suggest that it is being done, in part at least, "to impugn the living." As Rahm Emanuel said, "A crisis is too good an opportunity to waste." And The nation, captive to a media-manufactured mourning crisis, is now being forced to witness unwarranted hagiography that "impugns the living" by badly distorting the nation's historical memory of GHWB. This is an ideological task of propaganda motivated in part in order to serve the contemporary political objectives of the allied forces of the Left and the Never-Trumpers. If you will, we're witnessing the exploitation by the media and their political allies of the death and their distorted inflation of the reality and of the memory of one quite mediocre but eminently likeable president in order to advance an ongoing political campaign to destroy the currently successful, potentially great but uniquely unlikeable sitting president who disgusts them.

While he served in public office the media and the Democrats reviled, belittled and mocked GHWB, relentlessly attacked him ruthlessly, and finally drove him from Washington, D.C. labelled as "rejected" and "failed." But, now that he's dead, GHWB presents his former enemies an exploitable political opportunity, and GHWB can be safely praised and lavishly mourned by both his former enemies, the Democrats and the media, and by his former allies, the RINO's. So for the next week the crypto-pornographers of misfortune and mayhem who pose as journalists, the know-nothings of the press who have learned nothing and forget nothing yet pontificate on everything and their political benefactors, the insidious Democrats and GHWB's old allies, now the Never-Trumpers, will preen and strut in an amalgamous parade of both genuine and faux-adulation for GHWB, putting on an unwarranted display of hagiography as if Abraham Lincoln, FDR or Winston Churchill had just died.

MOST IMPORTANTLY, they will over-exploit their doleful soap opera opportunity by making every conceivable negative comparison between, ON THE ONE HAND, the dead president, GHWB, that self-effacing, modest, law-abiding, decent, faithful, loving, generous, family-man, the "good" Republican President, that Reagan-like statesman whose painful loss the nation now deeply mourns and, ON THE OTHER HAND, the current President, sadly still living, that deplorable imposter who usurped the White House, that womanizing, criminal, egomaniacal, white-nationalist demagogue, that crass presidential poltroon, Donald Trump, who stole the Presidency with pusillanimous Putin's help, ruined the Republican Party and disgraced his country while besmirching its allies and who, along with his family, is to be feverishly scorned like a thief, relentlessly hounded like a fox and driven from office like a rat until he and his family are crushed and destroyed like traitors.

"Oh, now in our hour of crisis, if we only had that 'Good Republican.' "
"They don't make them like that anymore."

Turn off your TV and stop reading the newspaper for the next week. And if you fail to do so, don't believe much of what you hear and read about the dear, decent, recent departed.

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Pukka Luftmensch
on December 03, 2018 at 14:04:04 pm

Pukka:

"SCHADENFREUDE !"

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Bob Manderville
on December 03, 2018 at 14:59:35 pm

Ole Bob the Ex-RINO:
I am not miserable so stop feigning joy at my expense, stop denying your despair and save the fakery for your facts about political history.

You're insistence that I am miserable is mere psychological projection of your own angst. Dem's do it all the time, filled as they are with stuff they're deeply ashamed of, subconsciously hate about themselves and wish to cast off onto others.

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Pukka Luftmensch
on December 03, 2018 at 15:22:17 pm

Pukka:

Hmmm you spend a few hundred words exhibiting you paranoia about Trump being compared unfavorably to pass politicians while I use one word and I'm the one with the psychological problem? There seems to be a huge difference. (that's "YUGE" in Trump speak for the uneducated Trump follower) A few other words lacking in Trump speak is civility, prudence, humility, class, character and principles. If your orange God exhibited a few of these he may get compared favorably. But I wouldn't hold my breath expecting him to exhibit any of these qualities.

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Bob Manderville
on December 03, 2018 at 16:47:52 pm

One word is all it takes if it's the right word used malevolently, especially if it's said with a sneer or shouted.
Take the vitriol and contempt in Hillary's "deplorables," for example, or in your your shouting "SCHADENFREUDE" at the supposed misery of others.

Reminds me of a Democrat I know who said that on the day of Justice Scalia's death he had awakened in a bad mood until he heard the news. And as he told me he laughed at his story.

Bob, you seem to laugh a lot at the wrong things, too, I've noticed

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Pukka Luftmensch
on December 03, 2018 at 17:51:43 pm

A Deplorable lecturing about "MALEVOLENT" and "VITRIOL " behavior........now there's a laugh !

Son, You have me confused with someone who gives a sh1t what you think of me.

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Bob Manderville
on December 03, 2018 at 17:59:44 pm

For a man who laughs so much (at the wrong stuff) your talent for repartee (even sarcasm) is really lame.
No humor, no wit, no style, no punch, no substance.

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Pukka Luftmensch

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