OPINION — As the tributes to President George H.W. Bush pour in, certain key words keep reappearing: Bipartisan. Gracious. Gentleman. We saw him build that legacy, one small or large act at a time.
Now we’re the president and vice-president of the Former Members of Congress (FMC). But three decades ago, Martin was a House member from Texas the entire time president Bush served first as vice president and then as president. Charles was elected to Congress from Louisiana after Bush’s political career ended; however, he has followed him closely over the years.
First, Bush was the last president who served as a member of the House of Representatives, though many of his predecessors (Kennedy, LBJ, Nixon and Ford) did too. That means he understood the dynamics of the People’s House and what was required to have his program enacted into law.
Second, Bush was first and foremost a gentleman who did the little things to win friends across the aisle.
Martin remembers clearly how Bush helicoptered out of Walter Reed hospital to present the Presidential Medal of Freedom to House Rules Chairman Claude Pepper, who was terminally ill. Pepper was revered by Democrats and Republicans alike for his work on behalf of senior citizens. The entire Florida delegation and all members of the Rules panel were present. Pepper, 88, pulled himself together to give a 30-minute acceptance speech about his career, and then died four days later. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
Finally, Bush’s political bipartisan understanding was second to none. Everyone remembers how he put together an international coalition to win support for a congressional resolution authoring the use of force against Saddam Hussein, after he invaded Kuwait. It was a controversial request, but both Democrats and Republicans joined together to provide a bipartisan majority in favor of the resolution.
When the Berlin Wall fell in late 1989, the House of Representatives established a special bipartisan task force to help the parliaments of Eastern and Central Europe convert from communism to democracy. The Bush State Department worked closely with this task force, fully supporting its work at every stage. There was never a question of what was good for Democrats or Republicans. The only question was what was good for America.
When Bush was vice president, he often traveled to the House gym in the Rayburn Building to play handball. We knew he was there because of the medical personnel staged near the garage door in case anything happened to him while playing. Both Democratic and Republican members of the House took great pride that the number two person in the government came to our building to stay in shape.
Those bits of bipartisanship, whether political or personal, are sorely missed along Pennsylvania Avenue today. We both wish that future presidents would follow his lead in making it possible for Democrats and Republicans to work together on matters big and small to make us a better country.
Few people agreed with President Bush on all that he did. However, virtually everyone admired him. Let’s hope future presidents and members of the House and Senate learn something from his remarkable life.