When President George H.W. Bush was first thinking about a White House run in 1979, he invited David Gergen, whom he wanted on his campaign, to his home in Kennebunkport, Maine. Gergen, now Public Service Professor of Public Leadership and director of Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School, remembers looking around for a driver when he landed at the Portland, Maine, airport and finding Bush and his wife, Barbara, waiting for him instead. At the end of the visit, as Gergen woke up at 5 a.m. to catch a flight home, he heard a knock on his bedroom door—the future president had brought him a cup of coffee. “I think you’re going to need this,” Bush said.
“George H.W. Bush was the most gracious man I’ve met in politics,” Gergen said as he recounted the encounter at an event Friday at HKS recognizing Bush’s public service and legacy.
Bush’s humanity—both his flaws and strengths—was at the forefront of the discussion. Gergen was joined by IBM Professor of Business and Government Roger Porter, who served in the Bush administration as assistant to the president for economic and domestic policy, and by former HKS Dean Graham Allison, who had worked in the Reagan administration. Nancy Gibbs, visiting Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice, moderated the conversation, noting that “hindsight is not perfect” in recollecting the former president but does give people a chance to reflect on Bush’s legacy and his focus on service.
Bush was a president who was perhaps remembered most for foreign policy, and yet cared deeply about domestic issues. And despite his patrician pedigree, he was seen by friends and colleagues as humble and as a model public servant. “We have had few presidents as interested in public service and in education as George H.W. Bush,” Porter said. Porter—who had remained in touch with Bush over four decades of service and friendship—cited his interest in establishing the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and the creation of the Points of Light Foundation to encourage volunteer service.
Robert Stavins, A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy & Economic Development, was in the audience and drew attention to Bush’s landmark work to push through significant environmental legislation, and Porter also made the point that Bush wanted to be known for his interest in the environment.
Bush’s military service also left an indelible stamp on Bush. He enlisted at 18 to serve in World War II as a naval aviator and survived being shot down over the Pacific. Porter, who joined Bush for a memorial event on the 50thanniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, said, “He deliberately chose to be there on that day and extend the hand to the Japanese.” When Porter asked the president why he had done so, he replied that we have to put the past behind us.
Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government and a leading voice on national security and defense policy, underscored this theme of forgiveness—of not being vindictive—while discussing Bush’s foreign policy decisions as president. “Who can imagine an American president who negotiated the end of the Cold War and then deliberately refused to dance on the grave of the vanquished?” Joining Allison in singling out Bush for his restraint in his foreign policy decisions as president, Gergen said, “You don’t govern through power. You don’t bully your way to success.”
“I think he possibly was a more consequential president than people at the time appreciated,” Porter said.
Photo by Raychel Casey