When news broke this past Friday night of President George H.W. Bush’s passing at the age of 94, press reports were quick to mention his “patrician” pedigree. The son of a United States senator, the New England-bred Mr. Bush attended an elite prep school and later Yale University.
Implied in such a reference is the insinuation that George Herbert Walker Bush began life with a lot compared to the average American, which wouldn’t be entirely untrue. Yet, such references often include assumptions that our nation’s forty-first president sailed seamlessly through his nine-plus decades of life.
It just isn’t true.
In fact, one of the more impressive aspects of President Bush’s long and significant life is that he accomplished all that he did despite the many setbacks and heartbreaks that he endured across the years.
First, there was the physical danger he survived. As a Navy aviator during World War II, President Bush survived two harrowing near-death experiences. In 1943, he was forced to make a crash landing after a bombing mission. A year later, on September 2, 1944, his plane was hit after he had successfully bombed a Japanese island. He managed to escape, parachuting into the Pacific Ocean, floating on a life raft for four hours before being rescued. It wasn’t long before he was back up in the air to continue targeting the enemy. All told, he completed 58 combat missions and won three air medals, in addition to receiving a Presidential Unit Citation.
Nearly 8 years later, Mr. & Mrs. Bush suffered the “loss that lasts forever” when their three-year-old daughter, Robin, succumbed to leukemia. President Bush would talk for the rest of his life about how difficult it was to see their little girl grow weaker by the day. After she died, through his own tears, he pulled his family together amidst a tragedy that very often tears a marriage apart.
The future president’s political rise was choppy, losing his first campaign in 1964 to an incumbent Texas senator named Ralph Yarborough. Although his two successful campaigns for the House of Representatives were successful in 1966 and 1968, he lost his second bid for the Senate in 1970.
Between his unsuccessful Senate run in 1970 and his failed bid for the Republican nomination for president in 1980, Mr. Bush held numerous high-profile, high-stress government roles, including ambassador to the United Nations, head of the Republican Party during the Watergate drama, and finally, director of the CIA.
Mr. Bush’s ascent to the presidency in 1989 following his 8-year term as vice president to Ronald Reagan marked the high point of the Connecticuter-turned-Texan’s career. His four years as president spanned the emotional and professional spectrum. He led America to victory in the wildly successful First Gulf War but was shortly thereafter voted out of office when the economy took a dive.
In the years following his presidency, Mr. Bush quietly cheered on his children, including George W. and Jeb. He saw George become governor of Texas and Jeb who won the governorship in Florida. In 2000, he watched with pride as George W. won the presidency, becoming only the second son of a previous president to follow his father into the Oval Office.
But his twilight wasn’t all serene or for the faint of heart. Mr. Bush endured the pain of watching his oldest son take the slings and arrows of political criticism. In his old age, he was also forced to manage the onset of Parkinson’s disease, a debilitating malady that eventually confined him to a wheelchair. Eight months prior to his own passing, President Bush endured another loss when he said goodbye to his beloved Barbara, his wife of 73 years.
The long and consequential life of George Herbert Walker Bush confirms what the Bible teaches and preaches. “In the world you will have tribulation,” said Jesus (John 16:33). Indeed, even the most successful person has to manage trials and tribulations. Nobody emerges unscathed. Even a long and wonderful life is marked by seasons of strife and watered by the shedding of tears.
Please join me in praying for the Bush family as they lay their father and grandfather to rest this week. Because he was a man who espoused a strong Christian faith, if his children could see where he went, I think they would wonder why they ever wept.