Former President George H. W. Bush is being remembered this week as a mensch, as well as a model of duty and service. His family and friends are even referring to him as the best one-term president in the history of our country. And while it may be that Bush was all of the above, there is no question that our fondness for the man has something to do with the healing effect of the passage of time since his presidency in 1989-1993, let alone with the more balanced public persona he projected in contrast to our current experience.
Certainly Bush was circumspect, careful with words and prudent — a favorite term of his — in his public comments and decision-making. He was also experienced.
Yet American Jews had some difficult times with Bush. He battled incessantly with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s government in Israel, which, not unlike today, was focused on building settlements. And Israelis and American Jews chafed at Bush’s pressure on Shamir during the first Gulf War not to retaliate for Iraqi missile attacks on Israel.
There were also the ugly jabs from Bush and his top advisers that made us squirm. “When you’re serious about peace, call us,” Secretary of State James Baker once said, addressing a virtual Shamir during testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Baker even gave the number for the White House switchboard.
Then, in 1991, Bush famously lashed out at pro-Israel activists who had flooded Congress in response to the president’s reluctance to approve loan guarantees requested by Israel. The Jewish state needed the money to help absorb hundreds of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union, but Bush held up the loan guarantees over Shamir’s settlement enterprise. Bush called himself “one lonely guy” battling “a thousand lobbyists on the Hill.” Jewish leaders rightfully resented the insinuation that the pro-Israel community was possessed of a power sinister enough to unsettle the leader of the free world.
And although Bush largely conducted himself and his presidency in a dignified and patrician way, he was known to use occasional, disquieting racist dog whistles, such as the 1988 Willie Horton campaign ad that played on white fears of black crime. That made minorities nervous, just as his confrontational comments regarding Israel were disquieting for the Jewish community.
Bush later told Jewish leaders how sorry and misunderstood he was for the “one lonely guy” remark. It was also Bush who, working behind the scenes, set into motion Operation Solomon, which brought 15,000 Jews from Ethiopia to Israel in 1991. And earlier, as vice president, Bush persuaded the government of Sudan to allow U.S. planes to transport 900 Ethiopian Jews stranded in Sudan. In this, he was ahead of the American Jewish communal leadership, and deserves recognition and praise.
The 41st president of the United States had a mixed record in office. He did things we applauded, said some things that made us uncomfortable, and backed some policies that were more conservative than a majority of the Jewish community was ever willing to go. And yet practically everyone who dealt with him described him as polite and self-effacing, gracious and warm, and deeply human. He was a mensch.
Although we disagreed with much that he did, we will miss him.