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 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT