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Learn from Bush’s aspirations, complex legacy

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The death of former President George H.W. Bush on Friday and the pomp and sad circumstance of his funeral this week brought out many fond memories and a mountain of praise for the 94-year-old Republican. The eulogies were long and lavish, deservedly so.

Bush had justifiably many accomplishments for which he deserved praise and admiration. He was a genuine war hero in World War II, a Navy pilot like the late Sen. John McCain who was also shot down in battle. He was the son of a senator who served in the House, held several executive positions including head of the CIA, was vice president for eight years under Ronald Reagan, became the 41st president for his single term and was the father of the 43rd president, George W. Bush.

We were reminded as a nation of his prowess in leading the United Nations coalition that drove Iraq out of Kuwait in the first Gulf War, an almost surgical if overwhelming force of power that achieved the goal with very little loss of American and allied lives.

We were reminded of his ability to mangle words (a trait shared by his son), his attempt to inspire Americans to public service as “a thousand points of light,” his belief in bipartisanship whenever possible and his great emphasis on “prudence.”

We were also reminded, in touching remembrances by so many, of his personal gentleness, kindness, humility, courtesy and deep, deep love of his late wife Barbara and his family. Bush’s legacy as an individual human being, also like that of McCain, hits home all the harder because of its dramatic contrast with our current president and many of the politicians around him. There was nothing about Bush that was “deplorable.”

All this, like other Americans my age, I remember and agree.

But I was also struck this week by other memories of Bush that were also part of his life and remain, even in the shadows, as part of his legacy. Especially with his CIA background, Bush was no stranger to intrigue, controversy and even deception.

He was considered to be up to his eyeballs in the Iran-Contra scandal through his involvement as vice president on the National Security Council. Remember Oliver North and those illegal arms sales to Iran to finance the “secret” war against communists in South America?

He supposedly lost his bid for re-election because he broke his promise never to raise taxes. Remember “Read my lips, no new taxes”? To help pay for America’s fight in the Persian Gulf and in the face of growing deficits caused by Reagan tax cuts, Bush raised taxes and lost his job.

His Gulf War achievement had its dark side, too, when Bush refused to keep fighting after Iraq was driven out of Kuwait. Many were frustrated when the troops didn’t roll into Baghdad and overthrow the government. Political scholars and politicians argue that Bush II thrust American into war against Saddam Hussein to “finish the job” his father started.

And, sadly, Bush drew attention this past year for allegations he groped women from his wheelchair. ‘#MeToo” got him too.

My point in all this is not to bash a man I personally admired but to remind us, and myself in particular, that all human beings are a mixture of good and bad, triumph and disappointment, grand aspirations and clay feet. And it’s important that we recognize these full legacies for the lessons we can learn from them — what to emulate when we can, and what to avoid if we can.

The American electorate was not kind to George Herbert Walker Bush when he ran for re-election. He lost big-time to Bill Clinton. His popularity, once a heady 90 percent after the Gulf War, dropped almost to President Trump’s level during the recession that followed.

I suspect, being objective for a moment, that history will be much kinder to George H.W. Bush, not just this laudatory rush of sadness we’re now feeling but a true sober examination of his presidency that weighs the good and bad, finding the balance.

But I do wish, though, that Bush’s oft-demonstrated love of civility and public service, his personal “vision thing” that would make lights of us all, would make a comeback in American life sooner than later. We so desperately now need the “kinder, gentler” America he called us to be.

God rest his soul.

Ken Ripley is a resident of Spring Hope and The Enterprise’s editor and publisher emeritus.