Editorial: Family, service lead list of accomplishments in Bush's successful life

  • Crowds gather during the public viewing as former President George H.W. Bush lies in state at the U.S. Capitol rotunda in Washington.

    Crowds gather during the public viewing as former President George H.W. Bush lies in state at the U.S. Capitol rotunda in Washington. Washington Post Photo by Melina Mara

The Daily Herald Editorial Board

President Donald Trump declared today a national day of mourning for former President George H.W. Bush. The nature of our sadness is reflected in an experience from the suburbs almost 22 years ago.

Money magazine brought Bush and his wife Barbara to Elgin in January 1997 to launch a program aimed at helping people increase their financial literacy and build their personal wealth. It was a telling moment that the former first lady was just as eager to talk about reading literacy and the former president about the limitations of money.

"If more people could read, write and comprehend, we would be much closer to solving so many of the other problems we face today," Barbara Bush told a crowd at Elgin High School in January 1997. "All the money in the world isn't worth a wooden nickel if you don't have the love and support of the family."

Her husband followed with a characteristic reflection of his own.

"For me, success goes beyond the questions of wealth and influence," he said in his address. "Any definition of a successful life must include service to others."

Family. Service. It is humbling to consider that these are the dominant themes as we reflect on the life of our 41st president, who died Saturday at age 94 a little more than seven months after the passing of his wife of 73 years.

Sure, the Bush 41 presidential legacy has traditionally political achievements. Presiding over the delicate transition in foreign relations following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War is no small distinction. It took skillful leadership and diplomacy to build the coalition that led to a successful and short prosecution of Operation Desert Storm. The enactments of a new Clean Air Act and of the Americans with Disabilities Act are accomplishments that continue to enhance our quality of life and bolster our national spirit today.

Bush inherited a structurally unsound economy when he took office in 1989. Its eventual impact, and his inability to address it quickly enough -- evident to some extent in the famous and ultimately false promise, "Read my lips; no new taxes" -- likely cost him a second term. Yet, the two other phrases most associated with him are his call for a "kinder, gentler nation," and the movement he promoted to recognize "1,000 points of light," or the many thousands of individuals donating their money, talents and time to help improve the lives of others.

It is that spirit that he emphasized in Elgin in 1997, urging his listeners to remember that their success in life may well include financial rewards but won't be complete without a commitment to serve also. It is no great revelation to observe that today we are far from the kinder, gentler society President Bush called for. But perhaps on this day of remembrance for him, our best show of respect can be found in an acceptance of that vision and a commitment for us each to do our small part to move the country back in that direction.

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