Skip to main content

What George H.W. Bush, at 90, can teach millennials

By Mary Kate Cary
updated 12:08 PM EDT, Thu June 12, 2014
Former President George H.W. Bush attends a college basketball game between North Carolina State and Duke in Durham, North Carolina, on January 18. Bush celebrated his 90th birthday on Thursday, June 12. Click through the images to see Bush's life in pictures. Former President George H.W. Bush attends a college basketball game between North Carolina State and Duke in Durham, North Carolina, on January 18. Bush celebrated his 90th birthday on Thursday, June 12. Click through the images to see Bush's life in pictures.
HIDE CAPTION
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mary Kate Cary: George H.W. Bush, turning 90, is recognized for his service
  • She says he sought to have a life of "meaning and adventure" and succeeded
  • Cary: 41st President has much to teach millennials looking to make a difference in life
  • She a produced film, airing on CNN, with interviews of 41 who know Bush best

Editor's note: CNN will air "41ON41," a film about President George H. W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States, based on interviews with 41 people who know him best, at 9 and 11 p.m. ET Sunday, June 15. Mary Kate Cary is an executive producer of the film and was a White House speechwriter during Bush's presidency. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- George H.W. Bush turns 90 today (June 12), only the fourth American president to reach that age. He's the last of the World War II presidents, the last American leader to preside over the Cold War, the last of a generation of elected leaders who saw themselves as old-fashioned public servants rather than cutthroat campaigners.

Today, there are college graduates who weren't even born when he left office. So the question is, what can 20-somethings learn from an old man like Bush?

It starts with what Bush said to a group of young people in one of the last speeches he gave as President: "What all of us seek in our life is meaning and adventure. It's through service that all of us can find both."

Mary Kate Cary
Mary Kate Cary

He certainly has had 90 years of "meaning and adventure" — flying as one of the youngest Navy pilots in World War II; serving in Congress during the 1960s; as US liaison to China in the days of Mao; as chair of the Republican Party during Watergate; as head of the CIA after the Church Commission; as Ambassador to the United Nations during the Cold War; as Vice President during the Reagan Revolution; as President during the collapse of the Soviet Union.

And as a post-presidential humanitarian, he has raised millions for cancer research and disaster relief alongside the man who was his most bitter political rival.

President Barack Obama and former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter arrive on stage for the George W. Bush Presidential Center dedication ceremony in Dallas, on April 25. Only a few times in history have three or more American presidents been photographed together. Click through to see some of those historic moments. President Barack Obama and former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter arrive on stage for the George W. Bush Presidential Center dedication ceremony in Dallas, on April 25. Only a few times in history have three or more American presidents been photographed together. Click through to see some of those historic moments.
The Presidents club
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
Photos: The Presidents club Photos: The Presidents club
CNN Films: '41 on 41' trailer
George H. W. Bush greets Obamas
Bush Sr. skydives on 90th birthday

Bush had a front-row seat to most of the major events of the second half of the 20th century, and he did it by dedicating his life to service to others.

"Public service is a noble calling," something he's said so often that it's engraved on a bust at his Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. (The students rub its brass nose for good luck; he once quipped, "Thank God it was only a bust!")

I asked about Bush's formula for meaning and adventure when I interviewed 41 extraordinary people for our new documentary about our 41st president, "41ON41." Many of the 41 spoke of Bush's lifelong commitment to public service, whether in uniform, in appointed positions, through elected office or in community service.

"This man has affected this country and served this country in so many ways," said sports commentator Jim Nantz, "and he's done it every step of the way with a kind heart, with good intentions, with real concern that he's doing the right thing to help people."

"I do believe, if there were more people like him, the world would be a better place," President Bill Clinton told me. "If your primary motivation is to serve, then, in an imperfect world, you're likely to make the right rather than the wrong compromises.

"His primary motivation was to serve. You don't get to pick the time you serve, and you can't control the circumstances in which you govern. There's always some good and some bad in it. But he made the most of a hand that was not the easiest hand to play. And he did it because, at heart, he's a servant."

Pierce Bush is G.H.W.'s grandson, and the two have talked about the day his grandfather decided to make the first step in a lifetime of service.

"He remembers sitting in an Andover [High School] auditorium right after Pearl Harbor was attacked," Pierce said. "There was this spirit that he wanted to be a part of. He wanted to go and defend America, he wanted to be a part of something bigger than himself."

Pierce sees the parallels with his generation -- in the same longing millennials have to be a part of something larger than oneself. His Twitter homepage quotes his grandfather: "Any definition of a successful life must include service to others."

Pierce works for Big Brothers Big Sisters in Houston and would tell you that his life is full of both meaning and adventure.

Condoleezza Rice is concerned that young people have only seen the worst of elected officials in a gridlocked Washington that seems to feed on character assassination. She knows how hard it is to decide to go into public service in such a poisonous environment.

"I would say to young people: Never forget that democracy depends on its citizens to care about it, to promote it, to work for it," Rice said. "Democracies don't survive if citizens simply leave it to others to do the hard work of governing, and so if you get a chance to be in public service, do it. The greatest thing that you can do in your life is to serve your country. You could have no better role model than George H. W. Bush."

Bush's life is full of lessons for young people. I hope you'll tune in to CNN on Father's Day at 9 p.m. ET to hear more about this remarkable American life. You'll be surprised how much you'll learn.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT