Yet, the former president’s most enduring gift to the American people is not only his demeanor. Rather it is in something that never actually even happened. And the legacy of that gift is so tremendous, and his leadership so central to it, that each and every one of us should give thanks for his presence.
It is a common belief, with plenty of merit, that Bush’s predecessor, Ronald Reagan, defeated the Soviet Union and ended the Cold War. But while it was Reagan who called for the wall to come down, it actually fell during the Bush presidency.
Time has dulled the stunning nature of that event, as well as the circumstances that surrounded it. The implosion of the Soviet economy, the attempts at political reform by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and the revolutions of 1989 that produced the single most threatening, unstable geopolitical situation seen since World War II.
Consider the world in that moment. The rapid collapse of the Soviet Union erased an imperium that was a fundamental pillar of world order. Its demise rightly should have led to wars. Lots of them. Wars of succession, wars of revision, and wars of revenge.
But those wars didn’t happen.
Had it not been for the two presidents in charge of their respective countries at the time — Bush and Gorbachev — the terrifying truth is that the world would have almost certainly slipped into darkness and war.
Travel back with me to 1989, and the iconic scenes of Europeans liberated at last after six decades of oppressive domination. Think of the failure of Soviet communism and the victory of western democracy and capitalism.
What didn’t you see?
American triumphalism, for one. You didn’t see terms imposed on the Soviets. You didn’t see western armies imposing “leverage” on the eastern bloc. You didn’t see an American president taking an unseemly victory lap, lording our victory over those living through political disintegration.
Bush handled the situation with modesty, and quietly went to work securing the future of the world order, which has produced unprecedented peace, security and prosperity for the world.
This was not a guaranteed, or even likely outcome. As it disintegrated the Soviet Union had around 39,000 nuclear weapons and 1.5 million kilograms of plutonium and highly enriched uranium spread across the U.S.S.R itself, as well as Warsaw Pact nations in Eastern Europe.
Bush knew that the implosion of the Soviet Union presented an opportunity for those weapons and that material to slip into the most unstable, violent hands imaginable –terrorists, rogue states, tinpot dictators — and he showed prudence, judgement and restraint as he dealt with the situation.
Russia was terrified of America in that moment. Their empire was crumbling, and they were vulnerable to the United States at her most powerful. Yet it was at that moment that the Bush administration moved to take American nuclear weapons off alert, and took nuclear weapons off U.S. Navy ships, giving the soviets time, and room, to breathe. It put them at ease, so that scientists could work to secure the weapons.
Similar deftness was given to the fragile situation in central Europe as Bush worked with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to unify East and West Germany into something that had been long dreamed of, but long dismissed as impossible: a united German state.
The European continent, particularly the Russians and Eastern bloc nations, lived through a painful, scarring experience. But they lived. And because of the masterful diplomacy and statesmanship of Bush, Gorbachev and other leaders in Europe, the result was relative peace, prosperity and growth for all involved.
Under virtually any other president at the time, the 1990s would not have turned into a period of unequal peace and prosperity for Americans, but instead would have been a generation doomed to the ravages of war, possibly a conflict that we might refer to in hindsight as the third world war.
Bush was the last member of the World War II generation to occupy the White House. He won, he led, and he achieved for his country one of the greatest gifts any president can bestow: enduring peace.
Having done what he did, we as a people dismissed him. And now he is gone.