“Oh, the vision thing,” is how George H.W. Bush once responded to a friend’s suggestion that he spend some extended time alone reflecting on his overall strategic outlook, rather than consulting others on the details of tactics. Bush’s apparently dismissive answer was actually a confession of his limitations in trying to construct a political message with a strategic theme of broad appeal.

He was much more comfortable as a detail man. At the time, Vice President Bush was seeking advice on his bid to succeed President Ronald Reagan, initially his political rival, then his election partner, and ultimately his friend.

Bush, who died at the age of 94, provides important examples of both leadership and friendship. His formidable executive talent and energy brought him success, even in the difficult 1988 election.

Lagging in the polls to Democratic nominee Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, Bush’s efficient, ferocious campaign machine relentlessly closed the gap. One campaign tactic involved highlighting the notorious case of an African-American convict who committed additional crimes while on a weekend furlough.

Dukakis had not initiated but did support that program. Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater often aimed for the jugular, and often succeeded.

The Democratic nominee had many other problems, including a lack of media skill and a bland public style. One unfortunate commercial had him riding apparently aimlessly in a small armored vehicle, wearing a helmet that was unflattering. Republicans seized the opportunity and ridiculed the beleaguered nominee.

Bush’s alter ego, James Baker describes politics as “a blood sport.” Both learned that lesson in 1960s and 1970s Texas political campaigns, where both suffered defeats. “Whatever it takes,” is how Bush came to view using ruthless tactics if necessary to win elections.

Nevertheless, a magnetic Governor Bill Clinton (D-AR) and economic problems defeated President Bush for re-election in 1992. The effective chief executive was never a natural campaigner.

Government leadership gave George Bush fulfillment. He represented the U.S. in China and at the UN, and led the CIA.

In the White House, policy successes included negotiating the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), ratified during the successor Clinton administration. Expanding environmental protection is another policy success of this active president.

President Bush, with Secretary of State James Baker and other colleagues, led the Gulf War of 1990-91 with extraordinary discipline and thoroughness. He declared Saddam Hussein’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait would “not stand.” He secured narrow Congressional approval to use force.

Bush brilliantly orchestrated the comprehensive international alliance under United Nations auspices to get the job done. The coalition included Russia and Syria.

To preserve alliance cohesion, and regional stability, that war ended with the liberation of Kuwait. Pressures developed to depose Saddam Hussein, but Bush declined to do so. He rightly feared sparking instability, and undercutting the coalition that freed Kuwait.

The Bush administration hemmed in Saddam’s Iraq militarily. The U.S. also conducted diplomacy that resulted in a semi-independent Palestine authority.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was no public gloating. Rather, Washington focused on stability and cooperation in Europe and Russia.

Born to privilege, Bush also inherited a strong family commitment to public service. As a young Navy pilot, he survived Pacific combat in World War II. He also prospered in the rough Texas oil business.

Government was a source of satisfaction, but he emphasized family above all. Among Bush’s many policy successes, the Americans with Disabilities Act was a source of special pride.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact acyr@carthage.edu.