Editorial: History will judge President George H.W. Bush well

Professionals will one day write the history of the administration of President George H.W. Bush. They will scour official archives, speak with scores of people, examine policies, controversies, failures and successes, and then write substantial books that examine the record. Those accounts will no doubt look at the war to expel Iraq from Kuwait, Mr. Bush’s successful stewardship of the unification of Germany and the end of the Cold War as we all knew it then.

These historians will also look at the president’s controversial appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and his use of the divisive Willie Horton ad during the 1988 presidential campaign. History is the sum of many parts.

This short editorial on the passing of the former president is not, by any means, an accounting of his one term in the White House. Others far more qualified will perform that service. But there are things we can say about the 41st president of the United States that should be said, particularly in light of where we find ourselves now in this country.

The former president died at the age of 94, and the news media has responded to his passing with many great honors. Many of these tributes have the feel, intended or unintended, of a comparison with the current occupant of the White House.

President Bush was a gentleman. He believed in country over self, in duty and public service as a kind of religious calling and, above all, in his family. His wife, Barbara, and their brood were his world. Nothing was about him. He was blessed with a small universe of loyal friends, many of whom were with him right up until the end. He kept in touch with people; he wrote long and affectionate letters; he called people out of the blue to praise them or offer his help.

As the 18-year-old scion of a wealthy New England family, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy after the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. His plane was shot down over the Pacific Ocean; his crewmates were lost. Alone in a tiny raft, he faced capture by the Japanese, which history tells us would have been horrific. An amazing film shows the crew of an American submarine rescuing this baby-faced 20-year-old and pulling him safely from his raft.

As so many others have said, his passing marks the end of an era. He is the last of the World War II generation to occupy the White House and, in so many ways — mainly in the civil discourse he promoted in our politics, in his patrician politeness and in his loyalty — his death marks the demise of a kind of public figure who didn’t wallow in the deep mud of politics but tried, perhaps with a few stumbles, to stick to the high road.

Those who know American history, who read history, can see in President Bush some similarities to Theodore Roosevelt, even to FDR, in that the three of them came from the moneyed East to immerse themselves in politics at the highest level. There are pluses and minuses for all of them, history shows us.

For President Bush, being a good man is a top honor.