The funeral for George H.W. Bush takes place today in a city filled with monuments. I could step outside of my Capitol Hill office and, within less than a second, find myself in view of impressive monuments and memorials to American presidents and politicians. Some of them are immediately impressive—the Washington Monument towering in the sky or the Lincoln Memorial with its almost temple-like feel. Others are less so—the Hubert Humphrey name on the Department of Health and Human Services, but, even those a reminder of the legacy of important figures in our country’s story. My favorite of all of these monuments, as important as they are, is the George Herbert Walker Bush Memorial, because it changed the course of my entire life.
I am not referring to the late President Bush’s vice-presidential bust in the senate chambers, nor to his (very impressive) presidential library on the campus of Texas A&M University. No, I am referring to a monument of flesh and blood, seated at my breakfast table this morning. My sons, Benjamin and Timothy. They are, for me, the best memorial to the life and work of President Bush that I will ever see.
My oldest sons were born sick and without family in the former Soviet Union, both with significant health concerns, one severely premature in his birth. They spent their first year in a Russian orphanage in the Rostov region of the Russian Federation. We adopted them and, as soon as we touched down on American soil in New York City, they were American citizens. More importantly, they were our family. They had a mother and a father, and a church, and a community, and a future.
I could never have predicted such. When I was a child, the word “Russians” was a term of alarm. We practiced hiding under our desks, just in case the Russians bombed us with nuclear weapons. In the schoolyard, we speculated about whether we would be a target for attack in case of war, in our little tract of the beach along the Mississippi Gulf Coast (Yes, the consensus went, because of nearby Keesler Air Force Base). We watched television movies about American kids, like us, turning back a Russian invasion. The Soviet Empire seemed permanent, almost eternal. I never would have believed that two Russians would one day be not only in friendly relations with me, but would be my sons. For that as a father, along with countless things as a citizen, I can thank George Herbert Walker Bush.
The Cold War was won thanks to more than just one leader. From Harry Truman on through Bush, American presidents held forth an American vision of freedom behind the Iron Curtain, and worked for such through military buildups, international diplomacy, foreign aid, intelligence networks, and so forth. President Bush was of monumental importance because he served in office when the Soviet bloc started to shed its inevitability and crack apart. When the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989, and when former Soviet satellite states started to claim independence and freedom, some wanted George Bush to act like a “winner,” to go to Berlin and pump his fist, or to crow with vindication every time another Warsaw Pact nation fell away. This didn’t happen. Maybe part of that was his upbringing from his mother, who was constantly warning him not to boast about himself. But much more of it was because of his wisdom and skill. When it came to movements that might help him politically, but could bolster Soviet resolve to stay and fight for their honor, Bush did exactly what Saturday Night Live at the time would make fun of: “Not going to do it; wouldn’t be prudent.”
Prudence is exactly what it was.
When the Soviet flag came down off the Kremlin on Christmas Day 1991, the Cold War was won, by military strength, yes, by international diplomacy, yes, by economic superiority and economic generosity in building alliances with other countries. But the war was also won by prudence—by the wisdom to know when to apply pressure with bombast and when to work quietly behind the scenes. With a weak president, the rumblings of the Soviet Union nearing its end could have provoked World War III. The same thing could have happened with a bellicose president who lacked the insight to see what was happening in the world.
With President Bush, we had a committed Cold Warrior who knew who he was. He had a personal core, a vision of the world, and the virtue of a steely, brilliant prudence.
If not for that, many would be languishing behind the ugly cage of global Communism right now. My two sons would be among them.
When I was sixteen years old, I watched on television in 1988 as George Bush gave what is universally considered his best speech, accepting the nomination of his party for president. Bush spoke memorably, in words written by Peggy Noonan, of his approach to the Cold War: “The tremors — The tremors in the Soviet world continue. The hard earth there has not yet settled. Perhaps what is happening will change our world forever; and perhaps not. A prudent skepticism is in order. And so is hope. But either way, we’re in an unprecedented position to change the nature of our relationship. Not by preemptive concession — but by keeping our strength. Not by yielding up defense systems with nothing won in return – but by hard cool engagement in the tug and pull of diplomacy.”
And so he did. He also spoke though of what it means to be Americans, of those who serve others and a cause higher than ourselves. He said he saw “a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.”
I can’t see a thousand points of light from where I sit as I write this. But if I look up and gaze around the hallway to a couple of thoroughly American teenagers preparing for school, I can surely see two.
Thank you President Bush.