President George Herbert Walker Bush passed away on Nov. 30, at the age of 94. Many in Brooklyn will never forget the former president — just like he never forgot some of us.
Let me explain.
In 1988, rookie New York City Police Department officer Edward Byrne, who graduated from Bay Ridge’s Xaverian High School, was assassinated on the orders of a drug kingpin. Byrne’s father gave Bush his son’s badge, and the life-long statesman carried it with him while campaigning for president that year, and later kept it in his White House desk.
Bush — a class act in his personal, military, and political lives — never forgot Byrne. And the borough will always remember him for that.
Much like his presidential predecessor Ronald Reagan, Bush inspired a new generation to join the GOP because of his leadership. When Reagan died in June 2004, I vividly remember talking to my friend Nicole Malliotakis, now a Republican Assemblywoman, on the telephone for hours while we both teared up watching his funeral services on television. She and I reflected on Reagan’s significant positive contributions to our nation and world, and his impact on us becoming Republicans.
This week, following Bush’s death, there are many Americans with similar stories and wet eyes as well.
Bush was a beloved husband, father, and grandfather. He was married to his wife Barbara for more than seven decades before she died in April. Many say that when someone loses his or her life companion at an older age, that person is soon called to join their loved one in the after-life. So, perhaps it should not be surprising that only seven months after Barbara passed away, former President Bush joined her for eternity.
Bush, or “41,” served as Reagan’s loyal vice president for eight years before becoming the first sitting vice president to assume the presidency since Vice President Martin Van Buren succeeded President Andrew Jackson in 1836. And Bush and his son, former President George W. Bush, were only the second father-and-son pair to occupy the Oval Office, along with John Adams and John Quincy Adams.
One could easily make the argument that Bush Senior was the most successful one-term president in our nation’s history. After all, who can forget his “This will not stand” declaration following Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait — or, more significantly, his forging of one of the most impressive international military coalitions to carry out that promise. Bush also managed the successful end of the Cold War, and oversaw the fall of the Berlin Wall, in his four years in office.
The elder Bush understood he was about to lead a new world order when he said in his 1989 inaugural address, “For a new breeze is blowing, and a world refreshed by freedom seems reborn; for in man’s heart, if not in fact, the day of the dictator is over. The totalitarian era is passing, its old ideas blown away like leaves from an ancient, lifeless tree. A new breeze is blowing, and a nation refreshed by freedom stands ready to push on. There is new ground to be broken, and new action to be taken.”
Indeed, Bush took those actions in Kuwait, as well as in Panama, when he gave the order to remove that country’s then dictator Manuel Noriega from power during “Operation Just Cause,” and in the Soviet Union, by developing a new relationship with its then leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
The 41st commander-in-chief always had the respect of those he led, because he was one of them. On his 18th birthday, Bush enlisted in the U.S. Navy — despite his family’s wealth and the cushy private life it could have bankrolled — and went on to serve in World War II as one of that military branch’s youngest aviators.
He also reminded many folks of a time when politics was not just us versus them and a zero-sum game between political parties.
His character and patriotism can be gleaned in the traditional note an outgoing president leaves his successor, when Bush wrote to Bill Clinton in 1993, “You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”
May we hope that Bush’s legacy is a reminder to all Americans that patriotism should always come before party politics.
Bob Capano is the chairman of the Brooklyn Reform Party and is a professor of political science.