On March 12, 1988, George H.W. Bush made a campaign stop at McHenry County College in Crystal Lake, stumping for votes in a gymnasium packed with supporters. Air Force Brigadier Gen. Chuck Yeager, the folk hero test pilot, said Bush was someone he admired as a pilot and leader; Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson followed, telling the crowd Bush was a man of “courage, grace, civility, temperament and leadership.”
Thompson’s words of 30 years ago remain an accurate summation of Bush’s record and life. Though he was born a member of the elite class – the son of a wealthy U.S. senator – Bush did not rise on his background alone.
Dec. 5 was designated a national day of mourning in honor of the 41st president, who died Nov. 30 at age 94 in Houston.
By most any measure, Bush’s life was a success, and America and the world shared in it. Bush was the last president to serve in World War II, flying 58 combat missions; he was shot down after attacking a Japanese-held island in the Pacific in September 1944. He served for decades in elected and appointed positions, including in Congress and as vice president, being director of the CIA and ambassador to China and to the United Nations. In his four years as president, Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, which removed barriers and ended discrimination against millions of Americans. He led the free world to a peaceful conclusion of the Cold War. He oversaw the building of an international coalition to drive Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait, assuaging the fears of a public for whom the Vietnam conflict was still a fresh and traumatic memory.
After leaving office, Bush would befriend President Bill Clinton, the man who defeated him in the bitter 1992 campaign, with the two first working together on relief efforts after a 2004 tsunami struck southeast Asia. The two would later work together on relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina struck the southeastern United States in 2006. Bush also would provide important counsel and support for President George W. Bush in his son’s difficult years as a wartime president.
Bush was a success beyond politics. His 73-year marriage to Barbara Bush was the longest of any president. He and his wife were a team, and together they raised six children, including future governors and a president. Bush returned to the area in 1998 to address the community at Benedictine University in Lisle, with Barbara by his side.
“Saturday Night Live” comedian Dana Carvey famously lampooned Bush during his presidency as a stiff, rather bland person who worried that things “wouldn’t be prudent.” However, in real life, Bush was a man of indomitable spirit, known for fast-moving speedboat rides off the Maine coast; he made his last skydive on his 90th birthday.
George H.W. Bush served America for decades. He brought dignity and leadership to the office of the presidency, and helped those who came after, recognizing that their success would be the nation’s success. We join Americans everywhere in mourning his loss.