Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. In January, Norton will publish his new book with Kevin Kruse, “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.” Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
President George H.W. Bush embodied a value that seems to be vanishing from our nation: public service. Love or hate his politics, most politicians who worked with Bush valued his deep commitment to government. And few would challenge the argument that he devoted his entire life to the public arena. He was part of a generation in American politics when working for the government was a virtue, not a vice.
His career was remarkable. After serving in World War II and later making millions in the oil business, Bush entered the rough world of politics in 1966 when Texas voters elected him to the US House of Representatives.
Five years later, President Richard Nixon appointed him to be the Ambassador to the United Nations. He took over as the chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1973, a difficult time, as Watergate was breaking. Nonetheless, he proved effective and his career boomed.
President Gerald Ford appointed Bush to be the ambassador to China and then in 1976 made him director of the CIA.
But Bush was also interested in seeking higher office, and ran in the Republican primaries in 1980, losing to Ronald Reagan, but winning election as vice president. When Reagan finished his second term, Bush defeated Massachusetts Michael Dukakis in 1988 to become President of the United States.
He would not win reelection, losing to Bill Clinton in 1992, but Bush remained active in the public eye teaming up with his predecessors – including Clinton – to raise money for disaster relief.
In politics, Bush was not above going low. During the 1988 campaign, for instance, he helped open the door to some of the nastier elements in our modern political world, such as Lee Atwater’s cut-throat campaign style that capitalized on division as a path to victory.
But Bush also was not always successful at what he set out to do. He lost reelection in 1992 because he proved to have a tin ear toward the economic struggles of middle class Americans.
The history books look back kindly on other aspects of his presidency.
He took a huge political gamble by pushing a major deficit reduction bill in 1990, for example and he handled the collapse of the Soviet Union with the adroit skill necessary to ensure that US political leaders did not bungle the end of the Cold War.
On domestic policy, he repeatedly proved that he was willing to break with the most conservative elements of his party, even as their clout increased on Capitol Hill. Despite the rightward drift of his party, he gave his support to environmental and civil rights legislation. Newt Gingrich – in 1990 the No. 2 Republican in the House – never forgave Bush for agreeing to raise taxes that year, though the deficit reduction package would become a major legacy of his administration.
On foreign policy, Bush demonstrated restraint as the hawks in his party were beating the drums for the US to maintain an aggressive stance. When President Bush did use force in Operation Desert Storm he insisted on pulling back US forces after the mission of freeing Kuwait was completed.
But what is most striking about Bush’s life, beyond the policies or the politics, was the fact that this man believed so firmly in the virtue of serving government. He was a civil servant to the core at a time that his own party was smashing government as inefficient and even corrupt.
Reagan called government the problem, not the solution, yet his vice president made government his professional home. Bush believed in the power of political leaders to help usher the nation and the world through big changes. Not only was he a politician to the core, but he was notably a father who raised two sons who served as governors – with one going on to become President.
We need more of George H. W. Bush’s spirit in this country today. We live at a moment in history when the values that he represented seem to have been jettisoned, with a President who often makes a mockery of the institutions he governs.
On the sad occasion of Bush’s death, it is a good time to raise a toast to people such as him, Republicans and Democrats, who understand that what happens in Washington plays a massive role in the quality of our lives.