President George H. W. Bush celebrated his 89th birthday last week.
There were a few mentions of this milestone in various media reports, but not much fanfare for the former president who has persevered through some serious health problems recently and now uses a wheelchair at public appearances.
Our 41st president has been mostly out of the limelight over the past few years and, indeed, ever since he left office.
There is a documentary on his life running on cable television which some critics have panned for being too vanilla and milk toast.
That may be the case, but looking back, you can’t help but appreciate how different he was from the presidents who succeeded him.
As the New York Times put it, George H. W. Bush’s was not necessarily the most momentous presidency, but his cautions, unglamorous leadership holds up pretty well in retrospect.
That is an understatement.
When you consider the misadventures that plagued the terms of Bill Clinton and Bush’s son, and the unraveling of Barack Obama’s presidency, he looks outstanding.
We will go one further. We miss him. Which is something we never thought we would say at the time.
We miss his dignity and decency and the way he carried himself and the way he served his country honorably in war and peace.
But mostly we miss his ability to govern and his ability to get things done.
This conservative Republican reached across the aisle to pass the Clean Air Act of 1990 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, two landmark accomplishments that have a profound impact on everyday life.
While he received criticism for not finishing off the Iraq army when he had the chance, his war to oust Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait had a clear mission and a defined end.
As Brian McGrory of the Boston Globe noted a few years back, his compromise on a tax hike (which likely cost him his presidency), combined with the spending caps and cuts he put in place, paved the way for the roaring prosperity of the 1990s and the federal surpluses that accompanied it.
That Washington doesn’t exist any more. What’s worse, the partisan, toxic gridlock that has replaced it is seeping into statehouses and local government. The notion of a politician as a problem solver and statesman is as nostalgic as George H.W. Bush.
McGrory put it this way:
“There are no leaders risking their careers in the name of the common good. There are precious few officials seeking compromise rather than cheap political points. There are no bridges, just blockades, no reasonable debates, just frantic threats. The extremes, especially on the right, have overwhelmed the middle, and the result is an economy in a government-prolonged rut.”
We need another George H. W. Bush to get us out of the rut.