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An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Passing of George Bush the Elder

Dec 3, 2018 by

Michael F.Shaughnessy –

1.Professor Elder, as you know, George H.W. Bush has just died. Your immediate thoughts?

Many of us suspected that he did not have long to live. In April of this year, he lost his wife of 73 years, and because of his close attachment to her many feared that he might lose his will to live. Indeed, only a few days after the death of his wife Barbara, he had developed a serious infection in his blood system, a condition that required his hospitalization. But Bush recovered, and eventually returned home. Still, his health remained a concern,and at the age of 94 these problems finally caught up with him.

2. Could you tell us a bit about his early life and education?

Some American presidents had humble origins, while others had the benefit of wealth and privilege while growing up. George H.W. Bush clearly fits into the latter category. His father Prescott had graduated from Yale, and had established himself as a successful businessman by the time of George’s birth in 1924. His family’s wealth allowed George to attend Greenwich County Day School in Greenwich, Connecticut, and then Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. At that school, George became actively engaged in a number of activities, becoming the senior class president and he captained both the soccer and baseball teams. When he graduated in the spring of 1942, he chose to enlist in the U.S. Navy. After flying 58 combat missions in the Pacific Theater of Operations, he received an honorable discharge from the military in September of 1945.

Upon his return to the United States, he followed in his father’s footsteps by enrolling at Yale. In 1948, he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics, having earned his Phi Beta Kappa key during his years at Yale. At that point in time, he decided to enter the oil business, and relocated his family to West Texas. There he would soon become a millionaire,and would eventually emulate his father by running for political office.

3. Now, regarding his legacy as President: what stands out in your mind?

American History judges presidents on their performance in both the foreign and domestic realms. Bush lost his re-election bid in 1992 largely because the American public felt that he had fallen short in the latter regard, as the nation had begun to experience a recession during his time in office.

This unfortunately overshadows the fact that George Bush had two notable successes on the world stage. In Panama, a dictator named Manuel Noriega had become involved in drug trafficking, and many in the U.S. intelligence community believed that he passed sensitive information to the Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Bush hoped that democratic elections in Panama in 1989 would remove Noriega, but the dictator refused to accept the outcome that would have ended his regime. The final straw for Bush came in December of that year, when an American serviceman stationed in Panama died at the hands of Noriega’s security force. Bush then authorized the military to remove Noriega by force in a mission named “Operation Just Cause.”

In a few days, the military succeeded in its objective, and a U.S.court eventually sentenced Noriega to life in prison for his involvement in the drug trade. Soon, however, Bush faced an even greater crisis, when Saddam Hussein ordered the Iraqi Army to invade Kuwait. Regarding this as a serious threat to American interests in the Persian Gulf, Bush mobilized a coalition of nations from around the globe to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. In what became knownas “Operation Desert Storm,” the allied armies succeeded in liberating Kuwait.

Until recently, I would have added another diplomatic initiative undertaken by Bush as an accomplished: the North American Free Trade Agreement. Although many attribute the program to President Bill Clinton, negotiations had actually taken place at the behest of George Bush. Although details remain a bit murky at this time, it appears that a recently negotiated treaty will supersede NAFTA. Even if NAFTA ends, however, Bush still deserves high marks for his foreign policy successes.

4. A difficult question, but we often refer to a son as standing in the shadow of his father. Will Bush the Elder stand in the shadow of his son George W. Bush? Or how will historians compare and contrast the Presidencies of these two great men?

Even though George W. Bush won his bid for re-election while George H.W. Bush did not, historians regard Bush the Elder as the superior president. Indeed, he ranks 20th in the most recent poll done by historians, while Bush the Younger stands in 33rd place. This stems largely from George W. Bush’s decision in 2003 to invade Iraq, and the collapse of the American economy during his second term. Presidents occasionally rise or fall in these polls—George W. Bush, for example, ranked 36thimmediately after he left office—but I suspect that Bush the Elder will always have a much better rating than his son.

5. Certainly George W. Bush had to deal with 9/11. What were some of the challenges and achievements of George H.W. Bush?

Fortunately few American presidents have ever had to deal with a crisis of the magnitude of 9/11, and George H.W. Bush fits into that larger category of chief executives. While he had to make important decisions about international crises in Panama and Kuwait, he didn’t have to deal with domestic acts of terror like Bill Clinton did with the Oklahoma City bombing, or his son had to with 9/11.

6. Any last thoughts in terms of reflecting on this great President?

Some presidents enter the White House with virtually no political experience, while others come into office with a proven record of public service. George H.W. Bush certainly belongs in the latter category. A decorated war hero, congressman from Texas, ambassador to the United Nations, envoy to China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and two-term vice-president, he entered office with more experience in the political realm than virtually any other president. A combination of factors denied him a second term in office, but his lifetime of public service definitely helped him secure diplomatic triumphs for the nation that he dearly loved.

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