Remembering a Life of Public Service
- Jim Graham ’81
- Jim Graham ’81
As the nation mourns the death of President George Herbert Walker Bush, Washington College remembers its honorary alumnus and the day in January 1999 when he and his wife, Barbara, offered lessons in leadership.
The account below is adapted from news coverage of the event in the Spring 1999 issue of Washington College Magazine.
Winter Convocation in 1999 had all the trappings of a presidential event: a military band and patriotic bunting, tight security, lots of media coverage, and the excitement of a crowd of 1,500 ticket-holders anticipating a momentous and historic occasion for Washington College.
George H.W. Bush, 41st president of the United States, was on hand to help Washington College launch its year-long celebration of the life of George Washington, the College’s founding patron. Marking the 200th anniversary of the death of the first president, it was the first time in more than 40 years that an American president had visited campus.
President Bush received an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree in recognition of his leadership in the global arena and his role in preserving world peace during his years in the White House. His wife, Barbara, accepted an honorary Doctor of Public Service in recognition of her work as an advocate for family literacy.
George Bush focused his remarks on the United States’ role as a global leader in the post-Cold War era. As Congress was conducting the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton in Washington, Bush refused to criticize the president’s personal actions or his policies. In response to a student question asking when a president should be impeached, he would only say that members of Congress should let the Constitution be their guide, and that former presidents shouldn’t interfere.
In fact, he said the only politics that interested him now were the politics of his two sons, Jeb and George W., who at the time were serving as governors of Florida and Texas, respectively.
“I can honestly say that, after all the high-level positions I’ve been privileged to hold, the three most important are the only three I have left—as a husband, a father, and a granddad.”
He appeared relaxed and at ease before the crowd as he articulated a message about the importance of strong American leadership abroad in ensuring a peaceful future. The world is a different place from the one he dealt with as president, he acknowledged, but with the victory in the Cold War came a new debate about American intervention abroad and a new set of problems.
“Ten years ago, our ability to lead was measured by how we responded to events rapidly unfolding in Central and Eastern Europe, where people were making their stand for freedom. We were gauged by how we interacted with the charismatic Soviet leader, Gorbachev, and how we responded to his bid to reform the Soviet system. Today the story is in Asia, and the priority issues seem to center on economics. The currency crisis, China, Jiang Zemin—these are the new issues, and countries, and names that dominate our attention.”
Although there is no single perceived “enemy” since the demise of the former Soviet Union, he said, the United States has a responsibility to take the lead “with principle and clarity” against today’s global threats. The geopolitical enemies of the day, according to Bush, were instability and unpredictability, as well as international terrorism, religious fanaticism, weapons proliferation, and the international drug trade.
“Only the United States has the capability and the moral standing to address these issues on a global scale,” Bush said. “That doesn’t mean we want or need to be the world’s policemen. What it does mean is that, as the sole remaining superpower, we have an obligation to help shape a more peaceful world in which freedom, democracy, and free markets are the norm. If we don’t do it, no one else can.”
Those who would have the United States “stay engaged in the world, do the hard work of diplomacy, and continue to champion the cause of freedom around the world” are being challenged by what Bush called “an unsavory coalition comprising extreme elements of the Left and the Right” who want the federal government to focus primarily on domestic problems. According to Bush, the “America First” agenda puts the country at a disadvantage in fostering trade and promoting regional stability, and hurts the nation’s credibility in the international arena.
“To me, there is no choice about what our role should be. We should stay engaged in global affairs, work with our allies, and set a clear direction as to the kind of world we want to live in…. Teddy Roosevelt, another one of my heroes, once said, ‘Much has been given to us, and much is rightly expected from us. We have duties to others and duties to ourselves, and we can shirk neither.’”
Bush urged the students in the audience to get involved in the political system, to recognize pubic service as a noble calling, and “most of all, remember that character does matter.”