George H.W. Bush, mourned widely and deeply last week after 94 years of life, was the last American president to have seen combat during wartime. He was also the last of a 40-year line of commanders in chief who served in World War II.
It may come as a surprise to most people, but Bush was the rule rather than the exception. A majority of our presidents have had military experience, 26 of the 44.
After Bush, however, the link between the military and the presidency broke, most likely because of the unpopularity of the Vietnam War.
Bush lost to Bill Clinton, who went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar rather than going to Vietnam. John Kerry was a decorated soldier in Vietnam, but he lost a presidential race to George W. Bush after his service was tarnished by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. POW John McCain lost to Barack Obama, who had no military ties. And Donald Trump avoided service in Vietnam thanks to bone spurs on his feet.
What have we lost, I wondered, since George Bush? How did war experience shape those earlier veteran presidents, Bush, Johnson, Kennedy, Reagan and Eisenhower? What may be missing in our leaders since?
Gary Dylewski stopped by the other day to help me answer my questions. The Colorado Springs businessman was Bush’s military aide during his first few months in office in 1989 and President Ronald Reagan’s aide before that.
There’s a military aide by the president’s side 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in case of national emergency. The aide is the president’s direct link to the vast apparatus of American military might, the conductor of the orchestra should the president need the armed forces. The military aide is also the person who carries the “football,” the briefcase that contains the launch codes for nuclear weapons.
“I used to carry my lunch in there, too,” Dylewski said.
So Dylewski knows of what he speaks.
“Professionally, the number one job of the president is to protect the nation as commander in chief,” he said. “So, obviously if you have experience in the military, you understand that role better. You have a greater appreciation for what the military brings to the table, maybe some idea of what works and what doesn’t work … because you’ve been there.”
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Bush deferred admission to Yale and joined the Navy on his 18th birthday, eventually flying 58 combat missions in World War II. The Japanese shot down his plane on Sept. 2, 1944, over the island of Chichi Jima. Bush still managed to release his bombs, as was protocol, before bailing out. He floated on a raft for hours before a submarine suddenly surfaced and rescued him.
“On a personal level,” Dylewski said, “particularly for somebody like President Bush, who almost lost his life … I can’t imagine that didn’t give him a greater appreciation for the sacrifices military people make at a very personal level. As commander in chief, when you’re the person who is making decisions to put American men’s and women’s lives at risk, if you’ve been through it yourself, and had your life greatly put at risk, you probably have a greater appreciation for the gravity of the decision you’re making on behalf of a whole bunch of other people.”
Does such experience make a president more cautious?
“I would say that it probably does, but I think that’s good. When you’re making a decision between, when does diplomacy end and when does the situation justify sending young men and women to war, if you’ve been there yourself, you’re probably a bit more cautious about what you’re about to do. So you’re going to exhaust all other options before you risk those lives, ask yourself, have I tried everything else?”
Bush always looked back in wonder that he actually survived World War II, and, for him, that survival meant he owed even more to his country, a lifetime of service, in fact.
“Why had I been spared and what did God have for me?” he once asked.
He kept the battles of politics in perspective as a result, believing all are solvable eventually because they pale in comparison to the real battles of war.
War also gave him a real sense that we are all in this together. Dylewski said Bush and Reagan “both treated every human being the same, all the way up to a high-level head of state or down to a janitor.”
World War II also instilled in Bush the marrow-deep belief that American military power is a force for good, that the United States is a force for good, and can do anything it sets out to do.
But Bush was never brazen or footloose with that knowledge.
Biographer Jon Meacham summed up his style of leadership this way: “History tends to prefer its heroes on horseback, at least figuratively: presidents who dream big and act boldly, bending the present and the future to their wills. There is, however, another kind of hero — quieter, yes, and less glamorous — whose virtues repay our attention … there is greatness in political lives dedicated more to steadiness than to boldness, more to reform than to revolution, more to the management of complexity than to the making of mass movements.”
That kind of hero is exactly what we needed at the end of the Cold War. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Bush didn’t overplay the American hand. Instead, he ushered in a new world order with patience, respect for all, and the generosity that comes from real, authentic power, never preening about an American victory. The Cold War ended on his watch without a shot fired.
“President George Herbert Walker Bush, naval aviator, decorated in his youth for valor in combat, took his experience in war to build a better world as our commander in chief,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last week.
“His service to our nation demonstrated how we as a people can draw on our humility, diversity, and devotion to our country to meet every challenge with fortitude and confidence,” Mattis continued. “We will miss him, but at the going down of the day, his example will long guide our sailors, soldiers, airmen, and Marines for how to live life without regret.”
Meacham put it this way in his eulogy on Wednesday: “George Herbert Walker Bush was America’s last great soldier-statesman, a 20th-century founding father. He governed with virtues that most closely resemble those of Washington and of Adams, of T.R. and of FDR, of Truman and of Eisenhower, of men who believed in causes larger than themselves.”
That, in the end, may be what we’re missing most in the years since: presidents who have served in causes larger than themselves. Such causes bring out our better angels and bind us in purpose.
Bush often said “when the really tough choices come, it’s the country, not me. It’s not about Democrats or Republicans, it’s for our country that I fought for.”
And that’s a cause still worth fighting for.
Fair winds and following seas, Mr. President.