Skip to main content

Time to toot horn for George H.W. Bush

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
updated 12:32 PM EST, Mon December 31, 2012
President George H.W. Bush shares a joke with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on December 3, 1989.
President George H.W. Bush shares a joke with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on December 3, 1989.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: George H.W. Bush, 88, must recover to continue to inspire on way to 90
  • Bush has packed much into life: war hero, ambassador, CIA chief, VP, president
  • He says elder Bush not given enough credit for role in shepherding end of Cold War
  • Frum: Bush will not toot own horn; others (Kuwaitis, Eastern Europeans, Americans) should

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including a new novel "Patriots" and his post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

(CNN) -- George H.W. Bush marked his 80th and 85th birthdays with parachute jumps. He said after the second jump: "Just because you're an old guy, you don't have to sit around drooling in the corner. Get out and do something. Get out and enjoy life."

Now 88, Bush has been struggling with serious health concerns, including bronchitis. We need him to recover, to set an example for the world of how a man can mark his 90th.

David Frum
David Frum

The son of a U.S. senator, Bush has been a naval aviator hero, oil millionaire, member of Congress, ambassador to China, CIA director, vice president of the United States and then the president who managed the end of the Cold War. He has lived more life than seems possible for any single human being.

The achievements of that remarkable life are overshadowed by one negative fact: Along with Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush is only one of three 20th-century presidents to have lost re-election. Yet while Hoover's presidency and Carter's are largely regarded as failures by posterity, the judgment on Bush's has become more forgiving over time.

Eighteen months ago, former President Bill Clinton paid this tribute to his predecessor in office:

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



"George W. Bush did me one of the great favors of my life. He asked me, not once,but twice, to work with his father to help people in need: first in South Asia in the tsunami and then in the Gulf Coast after Katrina. All told, we took seven trips together. It was an amazing experience. This man, whom I'd always liked and respected and then run against in a painful campaign in some ways, I literally came to love."

In the years ahead, we will hear more such tributes -- tributes that may at last do justice to a president whose most important accomplishment has been persistently undervalued and misattributed.

In the summer of 1987, President Ronald Reagan visited divided Berlin and urged, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

It was a stirring moment, a stunning speech. In documentaries about the end of the Cold War, that speech always gets prominent attention, as it should. Yet it is also true that after Reagan spoke his words ... nothing much happened. Nothing much happened for a year. Nothing much happened for a second year. Not until deep in 1989, two years later, did the communist system in central Europe begin its implosion: first in Poland, then in Hungary and only in November of 1989 in eastern Germany.

Bush aide: Put the harps away
2009: Bush skydives for 85th birthday
2009: Bush on fall of Berlin Wall

In one ecstatic night, the East German regime's border guards did nothing as local protesters overwhelmed the dividing wall. Then morning came, and Europe confronted the same question it had confronted for half a century: What would Russia do? Since 1945, the Soviet rulers had made clear they would plunge the world into war rather than accept a reunited Germany. In November 1989, they still commanded the power to do just that.

Over the next few months, the Soviets changed their minds. They acquiesced to the surrender of their single most fundamental geopolitical claim. They acquiesced without violence and without getting much of anything in return. In the history of world diplomacy, there has never been a negotiation like this one. That work of negotiation fell not to the eloquent Ronald Reagan but to George H.W. Bush, who never saw a speech he didn't mangle.

There is no "tear down this wall" clip by Bush. But it was during his presidency that the wall was in fact demolished -- and not by some lucky accident but after months of agonizing work by Germans and Americans together.

There's a saying in Hollywood: "He who will not toot his own horn, his horn shall not be tooted." George Herbert Walker Bush is an inveterate non-horn-tooter. He did not toot his horn over the end of the Cold War. He did not toot his own horn over his deficit reductions. He believed that horn-tooting risked alienating the very people whose cooperation had made the accomplishment possible in the first place. Very likely, he was right, too.

As the former president fights off the illness that sent him to the hospital, though, perhaps it would be well if he did hear a few toots from other people's horns: the Germans and other Central Europeans whose progress to freedom his diplomacy assisted; the Kuwaitis who owe their country to him; and too-neglectful Americans, to whom he bequeathed a world more peaceful, more stable and more free.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT