“The High Road of Humility”: Modesty in American Presidents

By Kaleena Fraga

As the nation said goodbye to George H.W. Bush, America’s 41st president, his friend Senator Alan Simpson eulogized the former president by noting: 

“Those that travel the high road of humility in Washington are not bothered by heavy traffic.”

The line was met with laughter in the National Cathedral–packed with those who had spent their careers in Washington D.C.–and with a moment of reflection. Bush was famous for his aversion to the word I, an aversion with roots in the lessons of his mother to avoid self-aggrandizing. 

Bush led an exciting life. As a navy pilot, ambassador to the U.N., chairman of the RNC, envoy to China, vice president, and as president he certainly had plenty of stories to fill the pages. Family and friends urged him to sit down and pen his memoirs. “I was unpersuaded,” said Bush. A prolific letter writer and diary writer, Bush nevertheless saw no draw in writing a public memoir encapsulating his life. 

His reluctance to do so is reminiscent of another American president–Ulysses S. Grant. Grant himself wrote a remarkable account of his life and of the Civil War–but not because he wanted to write one. 

On the first page of his memoirs he insists: 

“Although frequently urged by friends to write my memoirs I had determined never to do so, nor to write anything for publication.”

Grant, at sixty-two, was suffering from lung cancer. He had been swindled by a former business partner and sought a way to support his family after he died. When approached to write articles about his life for Century Magazine, Grant agreed. Mark Twain later helped him market the complete memoirs. 

Grant, like Bush, internalized lessons he learned from his mother. In Ron Chernow’s biography of Grant, Chernow writes: “It seems crystal-clear that Ulysses S. Grant modeled himself after his mutely subdued mother, avoiding his father’s bombast and internalizing her humility and self-control.”

Grant’s memoirs are far from personal. He is not particularly introspective–for example, he never mentions issues with alcohol, despite rumors that dogged him during the Civil War and, later, his presidency. Rather, Grant describes battles and muses candidly about sentiments on both the Union and Confederate sides. Grant died five days after his memoirs were published. 

At this time, in 1885, it was highly unusual for a president to write a memoir. President Buchanan published the first ever in 1866, in an attempt to save his legacy. Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion didn’t work. Buchanan today is regarded as one of America’s worst presidents, for his inaction during the eve of the Civil War. 

But the 20th century saw a glut of presidential memoirs. Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover all wrote their autobiographies. Every president from Harry Truman to Donald Trump wrote some form of memoir–excluding John F. Kennedy, who died in office. 

It’s also becoming increasingly common for presidential candidates to release books–often before their candidacy is even declared. Barack Obama wrote two before he was nominated in 2008. Elizabeth Warren, a potential candidate for 2020, released a book in 2017. Bernie Sanders released a book in late 2018. John F. Kennedy, who did not have a chance to write a book reflecting on his presidency, released his book Profiles in Courage in 1955, which introduced him to a wider audience before his run in 1960. 

Today, there’s such an emphasis on personal brand that any politician going the route of Bush or Grant would risk being drowned out by others. Certainly Bush was criticized for failing to “sell” his accomplishments in the 1992 election, which he ultimately lost to Bill Clinton. Yet in our era of “Only I Can Fix it” perhaps some humility is just what the American political sphere needs. 

The Man After the Wall: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War

By Kaleena Fraga

reagan wallOn this day in 1987, Ronald Reagan famously called on Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”–a wall which physically separated East and West Berlin, and symbolized the separation between the Soviet Block and the West.

Yet the wall did not come down in 1987, or in 1988. It would not be torn down until 1989, after Reagan had left office, and after his vice president, George H.W. Bush, had been elected as president.

A few months before the wall fell, Bush had also advocated for its destruction, albeit in a less dramatic fashion than Reagan. During a speech in Mainz, Germany to celebrate the 40th anniversary of NATO, he noted that barriers in Austria and Hungary had recently been removed, and so:

“Let Berlin be next — let Berlin be next! Nowhere is the division between East and West seen more clearly than in Berlin. And there this brutal wall cuts neighbor from neighbor, brother from brother. And that wall stands as a monument to the failure of communism. It must come down.”

On November 9, 1989 Bush received word that the wall had been breeched.

To Bush, the fall of the wall represented a great symbolic victory, but also a danger of violence. He worried that police in East Germany would fire upon demonstrators, and that this could turn a cold war into a hot one. From the Soviets, the Bush White House received a plea for calm, urging the Americans to “not overreact.” Bush later recalled that, “[Gorbachev] worried about demonstrations in Germany that might get out of control, and he asked for understanding.”

To the gathered press, Bush gave a prepared statement which welcomed the fall of the wall, nothing that the “the tragic symbolism of the Berlin Wall…will have been overcome by the indomitable spirit of man’s desire for freedom.”

But Bush, noted biographer John Meacham in his book Destiny and Power: The American bush briefs reportersOdyssey of George H.W. Bush, was more focused on what could go wrong rather than the symbolic triumph of the West over the Soviets, which led to a contentious exchange between the president and CBS reporter Lesley Stahl.

“This is a great victory for our side in the big East-West battle, but you don’t seem elated,” said Stahl. “I’m wondering if you’re thinking of the problems.”

“I’m not an emotional kind of guy,” Bush replied.

“Well, how elated are you?”

“I’m very pleased.”

Democrats in Congress also sought a stronger response from the president. Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell thought Bush should fly to Berlin so that he could make a statement about the end of Communism, with the fallen wall as a dramatic background. House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt said that Bush was “inadequate to the moment.”

From the Soviets, Gorbachev warned of “unforeseen consequences.” Bush heard reports of violence in other Soviet republics. In the days and weeks that followed, it appeared that Soviet power in Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia were also faltering. In his diary, Bush wrote that Mitchell had been “nuts to suggest you pour gasoline on those embers.”

When Bush met with Gorbachev at the Malta Conference that December, he was cautiously optimistic, and prepared.bush and gorbachev TIME

“I hope you have noticed,” he said to Gorbachev, “we have not responded with flamboyance or arrogance that would complicate Soviet relations…I have been called cautious or timid. I am cautious, but not timid. But I have conducted myself in ways not to complicate your life. That’s why I have not jumped up and down on the Berlin Wall.”

“Yes, we have seen that,” said Gorbachev, “and appreciate that.”

On December 3rd, the two men held the first ever joint press conference between an American president and a leader of the Soviet Union.

Expressing gratitude for Bush’s caution, and recognizing the danger of exaggeration, Gorbachev said that he and Bush agreed that “the characteristics of the cold war should be abandoned…the arms race, mistrust, psychological and ideological struggle, all those should be things of the past.”

Coming home, Bush found he faced criticism not only from the left, but also from the right–from within his own White House. Vice President Quayle, Bush wrote in his diary, saw a chance to become “the spokesman of the right,” a sort of disloyalty to Bush’s efforts that he had never been guilty of during his eight years as Reagan’s vice president.

Ultimately Bush’s caution about the fall of the wall allowed him to navigate fragile relationships with both Gorbachev and the Chancellor of Germany, Helmut Kohl. It allowed him to piece together a new, post-Cold War world order. His refusal to gloat despite pressure on both sides proved crucial, and can serve today as a lesson to other American leaders on the world stage.

Play Ball! George H.W. Bush, Baseball, and the Queen of England

By Kaleena Fraga

On this day in 1991, the Baltimore Orioles had an unusual fan at Memorial Field. Not only had the President of the United States and the First Lady shown up at the game, the Queen of England also graced the ballpark with her presence.

Queen Elizabeth’s appearance at the game came during her 13-day visit to the United States with her husband, Prince Phillip. The Queen’s parents had been the first reigning monarchs to visit American soil when they came at FDR’s invitation in 1939. The 1991 trip marked Queen Elizabeth’s 9th to the United States–her first being in 1958, and the most recent 15 years prior, in 1976, for the American Bicentennial.

The New York Times noted that at the game, “the Queen will be offered a hot dog, but she Queen Elizabeth II and President George Bush meet baseball pdoes not eat in public.” A waitress later told UPI that the queen did not eat, but she did drink a Beefeater martini.

The players of both teams were told to “be natural” while shaking hands with the four world leaders–Queen Elizabeth, Prince Phillip, George H.W. Bush, and Barbara Bush. Oakland player Jose Canesco reportedly felt so relaxed at the encounter that he chewed gum while meeting the foursome. The baseball commentators in the video above remarked that the players kept on their hats, but that “a lot of bowing and scraping before royalty is not the American way.” The Bushs and the royals then surprised fans by venturing out onto the field to wave hello.

The game was not without disruptions. Even before it started, protestors chanted “IRA, USA.” One group of protestors raised a sign that read: “Irish blood is on the queen’s hands,” and another group lofted a sheet saying, “One world, one struggle, free Ireland.” Once the game was underway, a group of protestors tied a sign that said “Bread Not Bombs” to a flagpole in right field along with several balloons, referencing the violence in Northern Ireland. UPI reported that although Orioles ushers were able to cut the sign and the balloons from the flagpole, it floated up “over center field in full view of the queen and the prince…”

While the game was a somewhat new experience for the royal couple–the queen was reportedly surprised to hear that Prince Phillip had played a little as a boy–President Bush is a well-known baseball fan. He and his father both played at Yale, and Bush was a frequent visitor to Orioles games. Why baseball? According to Bush, “it’s got everything.”

George H.W. Bush, Donald Trump, and the National Rifle Association

By Kaleena Fraga

The teenager survivors of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have taken to the streets to protest lax gun laws–laws endorsed by the National Rifle Association, which they say allowed their ex-classmate to legally and easily purchase a gun and murder 17 of their peers.

Although sixty-six percent of Americans have expressed support for stronger gun control, the rhetoric between the two sides is hotter than ever. Many conservatives have doubled down in their support of the N.R.A., going after the student survivors of the Parkland shooting as “crisis actors” or mocking them on Twitter.

george-h-w-bush-swearing-in-1So it’s worth noting that one prominent conservative, George H.W. Bush, walked away from the N.R.A. in 1995 when he found that their messaging had grown too fiery in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. It’s the kind of quiet courage that defined much of his time in public life–and an action that would be met with scorn by many on the right today.

The N.R.A had been on the offensive since 1993, when federal agents stormed a compound belonging to a cult called the Branch Davidians. The siege left dead on both sides. In its aftermath, as the Washington Post noted, “the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound only proved what [many N.R.A members] have been saying for years — that the Treasury Department agency is recklessly out of control, smashing into private homes to trample basic civil rights.”

In between the siege at Waco and the Oklahoma City bombing, N.R.A. executive vice president Wayne LaPierre (in the same role he holds today), wrote a “special report” in the magazine American Rifleman. Among other things, it alleged that LaPierre had received a “secret” document, which warned that “the full scale war to crush [Americans’] gun rights has not only begun, but is well underway.”

A week before the bombing in Oklahoma City, LaPierre also signed a fund-raising letter that warned that President Clinton’s ban on assault weapons would result in “jackbooted Government thugs [with] more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property and even injure and kill us.” The N.R.A. in 1995 endorsed the idea that the government was coming for Americans’ guns and their freedom. They pointed to Waco as the prime example.

Six days later, Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City.

McVeigh had been an NRA member for four years. He embraced many of the same positions as the NRA—he was a gun owner and believed that the government wanted to take his guns away. The Oklahoma City bombing killed 168 people, many of them federal employees. The N.R.A. found itself under increased scrutiny—it had pushed the idea that government could be the enemy of the people, and someone had taken this rhetoric and acted upon it.

Yet even after the bombing, LaPierre refused to soften his language.  When asked if, Wayne LaPierrein light of the tragedy, he’d like to take back what he’d said, LaPierre replied, “That’s like saying the weather report in Florida on the hurricane caused the damage rather than the hurricane.”

To George H.W. Bush the rhetoric and the refusal by the N.R.A to repudiate LaPierre had crossed a line.

He wrote a letter to Thomas L. Washington, the president of the N.R.A. resigning his membership. The letter, in part, stated that Bush felt:

“outraged when, even in the wake of the Oklahoma City tragedy, Mr. Wayne LaPierre…defended his attack on federal agents as ‘jack-booted thugs.’ To attack Secret Service agents or A.T.F. people or any government law enforcement people as ‘wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms’ wanting to ‘attack law abiding citizens’ is a vicious slander on good people.”

Bush went on to name several Secret Service agents and A.T.F. members whom he knew, and whom he endorsed as honorable people. One man, a Secret Service agent named Al Whicher who had served on Bush’s security detail, had been killed in Oklahoma City. The men that Bush listed, he wrote to Washington, “were no Nazis.” The officers he had known, Bush went on, “would [never] give the government’s ‘go ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law abiding citizens.’ (Your words).”

Bush acknowledged that he was a gun owner and an avid hunter. He agreed with the N.R.A’s objectives and believed in the importance of its education and training.

“However,” he wrote,  “your broadside against Federal agents deeply offends my own sense of decency and honor; and it offends my concept of service to country. It indirectly slanders a wide array of government law enforcement officials, who are out there, day and night, laying their lives on the line for all of us.”

In light of this, Bush wrote, he would resign from the N.R.A., effective immediately.

In between 1995 and 2018, the N.R.A.’s rhetoric hasn’t changed. If anything, it has become angrier, more reactionary. At the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) LaPierre warned that the “left -wing socialist brigade” sought to destroy “Western civilization.” At CPAC 2018, a few weeks after the Parkland shooting, LaPierre stated that the goals of the country’s “elite” was to “eliminate the Second Amendment and our firearms freedoms so they can eradicate all individual freedoms.” Gun control advocates, he said, “don’t care about our children. They want to make us all less free.”

Although Bush had been out of office for two years at the time of his resignation, he showed political courage that seems to be lacking in Washington today. Two days after the Parkland shooting President Donald Trump tweeted that “[La Pierre]…and the folks who work so hard at the @NRA are Great People and Great American Patriots. They love our Country trump gun controland will do the right thing.” Trump is the first president since George H.W. Bush to be a member of the N.R.A.

Yet for a few days after the shooting it seemed that the survivors of Parkland and other advocates of gun control might find a surprising ally in the president. During a televised meeting Trump stated that while he “loved the N.R.A.” action was needed. He also appeared to endorse the idea that guns should be taken from anyone who seemed to be threatening violence. “Take the guns first,” Trump said. “Go through due process second.”

But any hope at a bipartisan solution–or for the president to show any political bravery in the face of the N.R.A.–was short lived. Soon after a visit in the Oval Office between the president and N.R.A. representatives Trump reversed course, endorsing N.R.A ideas like arming teachers, and tweeting that gun control did not have “much political support (to put it mildly).”

To change the America’s gun laws, then, the nation looks not toward the White House or any political or moral leaders, but rather to a growing group of young students who are determined to end gun violence once and for all.