Finley: George H.W. Bush became a great ex-president

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

I was in Cobo Hall in 1980 when George H.W. Bush emerged from the back rooms of the Republican National Convention as the vice presidential nominee on Ronald Reagan’s ticket.

As a young reporter, I was covering the fringes of the convention. My assignments – stories about security and garbage pick-up – were far away from the deal-making intrigue underway inside the convention hall aimed at convincing former President Gerald Ford to take the No. 2 spot.

Former President George H. W. Bush, left, walks with his wife, former first lady Barbara Bush, followed by their son, President George W. Bush, and his wife first lady Laura Bush, to a Jan. 7, 2009 reception in honor of the Points of Light Institute, in the East Room at the White House in Washington.

But I remember the anticipation, the rumors, the speculation that surged through the hall that day, as everyone awaited Reagan’s pick.

In the end, Ford, the home state favorite, decided that after sitting in the Oval Office, the Old Executive Office Building, which houses the vice president, held no appeal.

So it was Bush who walked onto the Cobo stage with Reagan, the man whom he slandered during their bitter primary battle for offering up “voodoo economics.”

For conservative Republicans – and back then, that was not a redundant description; there were also moderates and even a few liberals in the GOP – Reagan/Bush was an odd pairing.

Reagan was a gregarious cowboy actor who walked into politics off of a Hollywood set. He was also a true believer in and evangelist for a budding conservative movement that preached a bigger, bolder America built on the country’s traditional social values and free market economic principles. He was the answer to the Carter malaise.

Bush seemed a poor Robin to this Batman.

He was a patrician who lived his entire live in the nation’s upper crust. He presented as aloof, often awkward, and bureaucratic.

After he was elected to succeed Reagan, the rap on Bush was that he ran for president because he felt it was expected of him, not because he burned with a passion for the office.

He appeared never quite at ease in the White House. I will admit to never warming to him while he was president. In contrast to Reagan, Bush appeared too small, too hesitant.

My break with him came with Tiananmen Square, the 1989 Chinese youth rebellion that gave that communist regime its only serious challenge. When those courageous young rebels looked to the United States for help, Bush wobbled, offering only platitudes. Perhaps there was nothing else he could do for those students. But I was ashamed of our country’s betrayal of their quest for liberty.

I voted for him in 1992, but without enthusiasm, and because nothing about Bill Clinton appealed to me.

Over the years since, I’ve grown into a big fan of George H.W. Bush. Hasn’t everyone?

In post-presidency, he revealed himself as a kind, gentle and wise man whose love for his country was limitless.

He suffered his reelection loss with grace and dignity, and turned himself toward finding other, less glamorous ways to serve America.

More than anything, he became a model of decency and integrity. When we needed to recall what an honorable, selfless president looked like, we turned to George H.W. Bush.

Perhaps he was not the best president America ever had. But he was certainly among its best ex-presidents.

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