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The nation and world mourn the passing of perhaps the greatest American leader of the post-World War II era, George H. W. Bush, our 41st president. While millions mourn, thousands across the planet feel the loss of a dear friend. As a young staffer to George H. W. Bush, both on the 1988 campaign and throughout his presidency, I wish I was one of the thousands that forged a personal bond with this special man. In reality, however, I am fortunate simply to have been around President Bush and have been in service to him and the nation. 

Despite not having a close personal relationship with 41, his impact on my life is tremendous. Certainly, to have played a small part in a presidency that ended the Cold War without firing a shot, executing the most successful American military engagement since World War II, Desert Storm, creating the fiscal blueprint that set the stage for the balanced budgets of the 1990s, and passing the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act are tremendous points of pride. 

But the greater impact of my experience with President George H. W. Bush was not of a policy or political nature.  It was the standard he set as a human being. As a member of the Bush administration, the unmistakable message was you are here for the country first. My responsibility was first to the nation, not to a political ideology or figure. Our standard, either at work or personally, was to always do the right thing.

The other message was that we don’t have political enemies. Certainly, the Democrats were frequently our political opposition, but they were never our enemies. We recognized that regardless of one’s political perspective, the goals were similar even if the pathways were different. We could disagree during the day but still socialize together.

These and other standards came not through memos or talking points. They came from the example set everyday by George H. W. Bush being the extraordinarily decent, considerate, humble, thoughtful man he was. His friendships with world leaders highlighted by the coalition he assembled for Desert Storm and the fact that Mikhail Gorbachev’s last act as Russia’s leader was to call President Bush to thank him for his friendship and his handling of the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

It was his genuine relationships with people outside the limelight that really impressed me. It was no surprise to me that the United States Secret Service issued a heartfelt statement after President Bush’s passing. He cared for them, and they cared for him. While the Service won’t say this publicly, there is little doubt that “Timberwolf” (Bush’s code name) was their favorite president. The Secret Service felt so comfortable with President Bush that once when the president was humming a tune, an agent told him, “don’t give up your day job.” And in a practice that his son — President George W. Bush — followed, the Bushes made a point to spend holidays in the White House to ensure the maximum number of White House staff could be with their families. 

George H. W. Bush reminds us of several things. First, civility is not inconsistent with strength and courage.  Second, the presidency is not about the president — but rather the country. Third, his example reminds us that public service is honorable. 

Perhaps the best memory we can all keep of Bush 41 is enshrined in marble at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas: “Any definition of a successful life must include service to others.”

President Bush set an example that was simply unparalleled. His loss leaves our nation with an emptiness that will likely never be filled. It certainly will never be for me. 

Sandy Baruah is CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber and former administrator of the Small Business Administration and Assistant Secretary of Commerce.

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