George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the U.S. and father of the 43rd, is being hailed this week as a great patriot and leader, quite possibly the most effective one-term president in American history.
“We in Israel will always remember his commitment to Israel’s security,” noted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, “his decisive victory over Saddam Hussein, his important contribution to the liberation of Soviet Jewry, his support for the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry, as well as his efforts to advance peace in the Middle East in the Madrid Peace Conference.” (See obituary on here.)
But during his tenure in the White House, 1989-1993, Bush was written off as a “wimp” by many critics, and his relationship was often rocky with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and the leadership of the Jewish community in the U.S. The president offended pro-Israel supporters when, faced with a large number of activists on Capitol Hill protesting the administration’s disinclination to provide Israel with loan guarantees to help house large numbers of Soviet Jews making aliyah, he described himself as “one lonely guy” staving off “a thousand lobbyists on the Hill.” (He later apologized for the remark, which was seen at the time as suggesting Jews had inordinate political clout.)
Perhaps less remembered, but certainly worthy of mention, is the role Bush played as vice president during the Reagan administration in championing the cause of Soviet Jewry and in his diplomatic dealings with the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia that helped lead to Operation Solomon, which brought 15,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
“When you add up the Jews he saved, he will be a great tzaddik [righteous person],” noted Abraham Foxman, the former national director of the ADL, in 1983.
Though a sluggish economy was a key factor in Bush’s loss to Bill Clinton in 1992, history will note that he helped navigate the U.S. and the world to a peaceful end of the Cold War with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and he engineered a complex and overwhelming allied victory over Saddam Hussein after Iraq invaded Kuwait. “This will not stand,” asserted Bush, who in hindsight appeared wise in not invading Iraq, a move his son made 12 years later, widely seen as a protracted and tragic misstep.
George H.W. Bush is being remembered as a modest patriot who served bravely as a Navy pilot in World War II (he was shot down over the Pacific) and worked across the aisle as president in passing bipartisan legislation. He was also known for his personal kindnesses and warmth, despite his patrician upbringing.
We recall interviewing the then-vice president in his office on his return from a visit to Israel in 1987. When his reference to visiting a “kibbitz” produced a chuckle from a reporter, Bush smiled and noted that he obviously had mispronounced the word and asked for the correct pronunciation. The contrast between that kind of humanity and humility with the comportment of the current commander-in-chief is stark, and no doubt adds to the fondness with which Bush 41 is being remembered this week. His place in American history is secure, and he will be remembered in our community for supporting a secure Israel and helping to bring Soviet and Ethiopian Jews to the Jewish state.