Honoring President George H.W. Bush

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Last week, we honored the memory of President George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States.

I served as education secretary when he was president, and I was honored to attend his memorial service last week. It truly was a celebration of a remarkable life and of the life of our country. Presidents Trump, Obama, George W. Bush, Clinton and Carter were there. The tributes were eloquent and moving, especially George W.’s. Pausing to reflect upon how President Bush lived his life is a wonderful lesson for all of us on how to try to live our own lives.  

President George H.W. Bush may have been the only person ever elected president of the United States primarily by being nice. I have dozens of handwritten notes from him – as do, I suspect, hundreds of Americans. His presidency is increasingly admired for his courage and restraint: for unifying Germany, for making hard decisions that balanced the budget and for challenging aggression in Kuwait with decisive but measured military action.

When I think of President Bush, I think of three aspects of his service in particular:

First, he was a gentleman – his temperament and conduct while he won and while he lost in war and in peace, with adversaries and friends, reminds us that you can be tough, you can win the presidency, you can be a combat pilot in a world war and you can still treat others with respect, which he unfailingly did.

Second, what we had in President Bush may have been the best prepared president in our history – a congressman, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, head of the national Republican Party, the first ambassador to China, head of the United Nations, Vice President of the United States, head of the CIA and the youngest aviator in a world war. I think how fortunate we were that he happened to be the one who came along then because the things that he accomplished in his four years – and the things that he presided over and led us to do – were not that easy. He served at a time when we needed that preparation because the challenges were immense.

Finally, I think of President Bush as a pioneer in education. In 1989, President Bush assembled all the nation’s governors in Charlottes-ville, Va., to talk about education. Terry Branstad, the current ambassador to China, was then the chairman of the governors. And out of that summit came national education goals that every child by the year 2000 would learn math, science, history, and geography in a proficient way.

Then, in the last two years of his term when I was education secretary, he launched “America 2000” to help states and communities reach national education goals state by state and community by community. Most of the steps that states, including Tennessee, have taken to make schools better in the last 30 years were either started by or encouraged by President Bush.

President George H.W. Bush may have been the most successful one-term president in American history – a man who put the country first, and a man whom I greatly admire.

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