It was a time of division, when political passions ruled at the expense of governing and, to the president of the United States, the essential strand of unity that has kept the nation together was becoming dangerously frayed.
And so it was that President George Herbert Walker Bush said words on that January day in 1989 that came down to the nation he served, and the one he left on Friday as he passed away at the age of 94.
“We have seen the hard looks and heard the statements in which not each other’s ideas are challenged but each other’s motives. And our great parties have too often been far apart and untrusting of each other,” he said, using the Vietnam War as the time when the cancer of hatred began eating at America’s body politic. “A new breeze is blowing, and the old bipartisanship must be made new again.”
Bush then looked back to a not-too-distant past as he hoped for a better future.
“To my friends, and, yes, I do mean friends — in the loyal opposition and, yes, I mean loyal — I put out my hand. I am putting out my hand to you, Mr. Speaker. I am putting out my hand to you, Mr. Majority Leader. For this is the thing: This is the age of the offered hand,” he said.
“And we can’t turn back clocks, and I don’t want to,” Bush added. “But when our fathers were young, Mr. Speaker, our differences ended at the water’s edge. And we don’t wish to turn back time, but when our mothers were young, Mr. Majority Leader, the Congress and the Executive were capable of working together to produce a budget on which this nation could live. Let us negotiate soon and hard. But in the end, let us produce.
“The American people await action. They didn’t send us here to bicker. They ask us to rise above the merely partisan. ‘In crucial things, unity’ — and this, my friends, is crucial.”
Bush assumed office at a time when the Berlin Wall still stood, but its ideological foundations were crumbling after the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who Bush served under as vice president. He spoke with zeal for the message that America was delivering to the world.
“We know what works: Freedom works. We know what’s right: Freedom is right. We know how to secure a more just and prosperous life for man on Earth: through free markets, free speech, free elections and the exercise of free will unhampered by the state,” he said.
Bush knew that the America he led was not defined by Washington, but by what happened in places far beyond the Beltway, where the essence of America kept shining through.
“For we are a nation of communities, of thousands and tens of thousands of ethnic, religious, social, business, labor union, neighborhood, regional and other organizations, all of them varied, voluntary and unique. This is America … a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky,” he said in his 1988 Republican National Convention acceptance speech, which can be viewed on YouTube or read at AmericanRhetoric.com.
Bush also used that occasion to look beyond politics.
“I am guided by certain traditions. One, is that there is a God and he is good, and his love, while free, has a self-imposed cost: We must be good to one another,” Bush said.
If the president could stir the national soul, there were also moments when the humanity that defined Bush after his presidency shone through, even in the pressures of the Oval Office.
“I do not like broccoli, and I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m president of the United States, and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli,” he said in 1990, to the delight of children everywhere trying to dodge their vegetables, according to the Los Angeles Times.
But more than anything else, the 41st president believed that America had a mission that did not end at its borders.
“In the wake of the Cold War, in a world where we are the only remaining superpower, it is the role of the United States to marshal its moral and material resources to promote a democratic peace. It is our responsibility, it is our opportunity to lead. There is no one else,” he said at West Point in 1993 days before leaving office, according to CNBC.
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