Saturday, December 1, 2018

The President of My Adolescence

The Velvet Revolution in Prague - 1989
Ronald Reagan was the president of my childhood, but President George H. W. Bush was the man who sat in the Oval Office for most of my adolescence. I was in high school from 1989 through 1993, almost mirroring the presidency of Bush 41. It was a stunning and amazing time to grow in my political awareness and be a witness to history as the global power structure that had held firm for forty years dissolved.

During the summer before I started high school, just a few months into Bush's term, a college student stood in front of a tank at Tiananmen Square in China, declaring in courageous silence the words that Patrick Henry had proclaimed two hundred years earlier - he wanted liberty or he instead was willing to face death.

The autumn of my freshman year, the Berlin Wall came down. My peers and I had spent our entire lives intrigued and frightened by the people who lived on the other side of the "iron curtain." Were Soviet kids just like us? Did they play games and enjoy time with their families? Countless movies had the plotline of facing off against the Commies. Even my favorite sitcoms featured those scary Soviets (anyone else remember when Alex P. Keaton played chess against a Soviet teen and they realized they weren't so different after all?). And now, the secret world was being exposed. As everyone stepped onto the bus to head to school the next morning, we were asking each other, "Did you watch what happened at the Berlin Wall last night?" It was amazing.

Just a month later, hundreds and then thousands upon thousands of students assembled in Prague to demand the same freedoms they saw their neighbors in East Germany now experiencing. Eventually there were a half million people gathered in the center of the city, most of them only five to ten years older than my 14-year-old self, in defiance of a Communist regime that had oppressed them for decades. Their energy and their cause spread throughout Eastern Europe. Absolutely breathtaking.

Only two years later, the entire Soviet Union would be no more. Gorbachev resigned his position and Boris Yeltsin took over as leader of Russia in a world that now looked very different. I remember lying in bed wide awake all night as I listened to news reports of the Communist government's collapse on my radio. I get teary eyed even now thinking about those years of sweeping change. The years of the United States versus the USSR were no more. It's difficult for me to explain to my children what is was like to be their ages and to have an "enemy" like the Soviet Union. As the saying goes, you had to be there.

While Communism fell in Romania and Poland and the Baltics and Yugoslavia, the United States led an invasion to push Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. Some of my friends handed out flyers urging everyone to attend "No War for Oil" protests in D.C. We didn't have cable at my house, but I remember watching 24-hour coverage on CNN with my friends. It was the first war to be broadcast in real time across the globe. We watched the attacks as green streaks shown through night vision goggles. We learned names like Powell and Schwarzkopf.

Whitney Houston sang her heart out at the Super Bowl with a rendition of the National Anthem that is still considered the standard, as our celebration over a quick victory in the Middle East just several months later allowed us to honor and thank our Gulf War troops as well as try to assuage our collective guilt and make amends with our Vietnam veterans who faced a much different homecoming less than twenty years earlier.

Through all of this, the United States was led by President George H. W. Bush. Here is what I remember about his role during this transformative time - not much. And that is a huge compliment. Bush did not, usually, make the moments about him. He did not inject his personality into the amazing events taking place around the globe. He was an even-tempered leader who was taught by his mama not to talk about himself too much.

President Bush guided our nation through these transformative years without comments like "look what I did" and without pushing to be front and center at every photo opportunity. (I actually remember more of his vice president, Dan Quayle, in the media than the president himself. Between the potato"e" scandal and the chastising of Murphy Brown, how could Bush 41 compete with Quayle?) President George H. W. Bush was the right man for the times in which he served. He did not try to overshadow the events that deserved center stage.

This is not to say that Bush was without his faults. As a high school student, I wondered along with many of my teenaged peers if the Gulf War was warranted. I was concerned about what kind of legacy our intervention would create. (My friends and I also discussed in worried whispers the rumor that Iraq planned to send people over here to drive around the Beltway with poison stuck in car exhaust pipes that would kill scores of us.) Bush and his predecessor did not do enough to address the AIDS crisis that swept through our country in the 1980s and early 1990s (and that was the primary reason that Health class became required as I entered high school). He certainly seemed out of touch when shocked by an electronic price scanner at the grocery store. He was unable to maneuver his way out of a difficult economy and his popularity just after the Gulf War was not enough to prevent his defeat to Bill Clinton my senior year in high school.

But he also worked with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to pass the Immigration Act of 1990, which increased legal immigration to our country by forty percent. He wanted to make it easier for people to come here and be a part of an American dream that is better when more voices contribute to its telling. While awkward in his understanding of the deeper issues at play in the Rodney King beating and riots in Los Angeles after the initial verdict, Bush was quick to employ investigators to achieve justice for King at the federal level. He was a commander-in-chief who sent young men and women into battle with the reluctance and with the measured force of someone who had faced war himself. He did not see Democrats as the enemy. In fact, Bill Clinton became one of his most treasured friends and allies for important charity work. He spent his entire life in service to a nation he honored. He acted with humility and class in twenty-five years that he lived after he left the White House. He was part of a great love story.

And, from my selfish and personal perspective, he was president as the world changed around me and as I moved from being a kid to adulthood. I will remember him fondly and wish him eternal peace with his beloved Barbara at his side.


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