George H.W. Bush, a master of dignity and statesmanship

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If we’re looking for proof that we don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone, the presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush makes the point conclusively.

He set the gold standard for genuine human decency and thorough preparation for a job he got right. Sadly, that was no match for the whims of American voters, who chose to limit our 41st president to one term.

Oh, but what a term. He was commander in chief during the invasion of Panama and the first Gulf War, both of which saw the 82nd Airborne Division and many others from Fort Bragg play a key role. And it was in his presidency that the Soviet Union dissolved. It was President Bush who negotiated a longstanding nuclear arms reduction treaty with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and then made further progress in agreements with Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

It was especially the Gulf War that showcased President Bush’s extraordinary preparation for his role of national leadership. He was the last president to serve in World War II, enlisting in the Navy when he was only 18. He rose quickly, becoming one of the Navy’s youngest combat pilots. On one mission he was forced to ditch his fighter-bomber and was rescued by an American submarine.

After the war, he moved to Texas and quickly found success in the oil business. But once he secured his family’s financial independence, he turned to public service, first serving in Congress, and then gaining a series of appointments that included ambassador to the United Nations, director of the CIA and chairmanship of the Republican Party.

He used every bit of that background during a presidency that was marked by savvy, careful international leadership. When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein seized control of Kuwait, the president drew on his CIA background to understand the dynamics of the Middle East, and his UN experience to assembly an international coalition to drive the Iraqis decisively out of Kuwait. And that Middle Eastern experience meant he didn’t need Gen. Colin Powell to remind him of the “Pottery Barn Rule — You Break It, You Own It.”

Rather than hunt down the Iraqi leader, he knew we and the Middle East would be better off if Saddam were simply contained. In a 1998 book he co-authored with his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, he explained his controversial decision to leave Saddam in place: “Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land. It would have been a dramatically different — and perhaps barren — outcome.”

Five years later, the president’s son, George W. Bush, proved the truth of that observation. We’re still in Iraq today. The wisdom didn’t pass from father to son.

The Gulf War — which was a deep social and economic challenge for the Fayetteville community — wasn’t President Bush’s last connection with Fort Bragg. After his presidency, in fact, he grew closer to this community. He visited here for a political fundraiser and also forged a strong tie with the U.S. Army Parachute Team, the Golden Knights. He jumped with them for the first time in Arizona, at the age of 72.

That same year, he visited Fort Bragg for a Golden Knights reunion, and in 2004, he attended the opening ceremony for the team’s headquarters building. And he kept jumping with the team. His last was a tandem jump from a helicopter near his summer home in Maine — to celebrate his 90th birthday.

The president’s love of adventure was exceeded only by his kindness and decency. He treated his staff, other politicians (even Democrats) and the people he met every day with courtesy, respect and caring. He maintained hundreds, maybe thousands, of relationships with people he’d met on his life’s path, sending notes or making calls. His presidency was marked by a level of wise statesmanship and dignity that we’ve seldom seen since.

Rest in peace, Mr. President.