BOSTON (CBS) – Among the many honorifics that apply to the late George Herbert Walker Bush is one that implies strength, resilience, intelligence and quirkiness – New Englander.
The former president’s regional ties are mostly well-known. Born in Milton, Mass., he attended Yale University (after delaying matriculation so he could risk his life flying Allied missions during World War II). And the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine is a familiar part of his legacy.
But Mr. Bush’s identity as a New Englander has more to do with the way he lived than where.
Long before Sen. Elizabeth Warren turned persistence into a T-shirt slogan, Mr. Bush was a study in political determination. He lost his first bid for the Senate in 1964; two years later, he became the first Republican ever elected to the U.S. House from Houston. But he gave up that seat in 1970 to run and lose again for the Senate.
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To make up for that sacrifice, President Nixon appointed Mr. Bush to be U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, touching off a career as a major GOP and international figure that included stints as chair of the Republican National Committee, US envoy to China and CIA director.
But Mr. Bush wasn’t content with just being a well-credentialed millionaire. In 1980, he ran for president, winding up with the consolation prize, the vice-presidential nomination on the ticket with Ronald Reagan.
In that role, another characteristically New England trait was tested – loyalty.
The 1986 Iran-Contra scandal over the Reagan administration’s involvement in illegally funding an anti-Communist insurgency in Nicaragua embarrassed Mr. Bush by forcing him to parrot a White House line he knew was implausible. But loyalty to friends and allies was a crucial part of Mr. Bush’s code, and he took the heat without public complaint.
Honor and devotion were key parts of the Bush family mantra, but while Mr. Bush’s impeccable manners and courtliness were legendary among those who knew him, he could also – like any real New Englander – drop the gloves when necessary.
This was memorably apparent during his successful 1988 campaign for president against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, when he pummeled Dukakis with dubious charges of complicity in the pollution of Boston Harbor and questioned his patriotism because Dukakis opposed mandatory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.
Bush’s lone term in the White House is generally considered a political failure because of poor approval ratings at its end and a devastating loss to Bill Clinton in 1992. But his work displayed considerable nerve, from his oversight of the fall of the Soviet Union and East Germany to his politically toxic decision to support a deficit-curbing tax hike.
One of Mr. Bush’s signature initiatives – the Points of Light campaign to promote volunteerism – continues to help the needy, and reflects another New England strain in his work: a strong and consistent sense of community and the need to give back. His post-presidency friendships with Clinton and Barack Obama have modeled bipartisanship and the ability to build friendships across party lines, two qualities in short supply these days.
And Mr. Bush’s sheer – at-times idiosyncratic – grittiness was manifest in the way he chose to celebrate his 90th birthday – by skydiving from a helicopter in Kennebunkport. “It’s a wonderful day in Maine,” he said. “Nice enough for a parachute jump.”
George H.W. Bush’s personality and achievements might be duplicated by a native of another region of America. But to his fellow New Englanders, they ring awfully familiar.
It just goes to show – you can take the man out of New England, but you can’t take New England out of the man.