41@80

TIME’s Hugh Sidey has a touching and amusing feature on President George H.W. Bush, who is rapidly approaching his 80th birthday.

Former President George H.W. Bush is the only person on this planet who can casually prowl by jet, ship and train the upper reaches of power from London to Beijing, dine intimately with heads of state, call the President of the U.S. when he wants, e-mail any of 14 grandchildren about school and baseball (“Astros might go to the World Series”), talk details with a handyman making repairs on the house that has been his spiritual home for eight decades, track menacing chipmunks in the flower beds and then turn and embrace a visiting billionaire.

Not to mention at 5:30 one recent morning bang on a houseguest’s bedroom door, elbow it open and deliver a tray of hot coffee and grapefruit wedges and then trumpet the start of an adventure that would in a few hours take him inside the roaring wind tunnel at Fort Bragg. There, in the levitating blast of air, he grins and trains for free fall from an airplane, looking like Buck Rogers (his era) in helmeted black zip-up, forming an untethered star with half a dozen new buddies of the Army’s Golden Knights Parachute Team. “It’s the greatest,” he says.

Bush the Elder has, in my view, surpassed Jimmy Carter for the title “The Greatest Ex-President, Ever.” I was certainly no fan of Carter the president, but there’s a lot to admire about Carter the man. His charitable work, most notably with Habitat for Humanity, and his work as a roving ambassador for peace and democracy has been impressive indeed. Unfortunately, he has lately often crossed the line ex-presidents never should and gotten too mired into current political controversies. Elder statesmen need to stay above the fray.

While I twice voted for and admired the elder President Bush, and was happy to have him as my Commander in Chief when he sent me off to war, his presidency was mediocre. He surrounded himself with Do Nothing types like John Sununu and got outflanked too often by congressional Democrats unafraid to play hardball. I’ve always thought he’d have been a much better Prime Minister than President, as he never had a taste for the rough and tumble of politics and, indeed, was pretty hamhanded and reluctant when he had to engage in it. (Indeed, the same could be said for Carter.)

Almost immediately after being defeated for re-election in November 1992, though, Bush almost magically transformed into the man we see today. He’s amazingly magnanimous and self deprecating. He has become the role model for aging men everywhere and, indeed, puts most of us less than half his age to shame with his physical energy and courage. Just as the sight of an ex-president in coveralls swinging a hammer served as a model a generation ago, the image of an elderly ex-president jumping out of perfectly good airplanes is an inspiration in an age where men live much longer than they’d ever dreamed. Bush 41 is the role model Alpha male for the geriatric set, unashamedly showing his emotions as he reflects on people sacrificing their lives one minute and gleefully jumping with the Golden Knights, with the enthusiasm of a teenager, the next.

FILED UNDER: US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. mark says:

    Are you going to go skydiving on your 80th birthday? I’m not…heh

    But, your post does make me wonder how Reagan would have handled the “ex-presidency” if he were able to.

  2. McGehee says:

    After reading the NYT piece about Dubya’s bike rides — he leaves his Secret Service escort sore and complaining about having to try to keep up with him — I am now left wondering which Bush, 41 or 43, will be the first former president to live to be 100.

  3. Paul says:

    Almost immediately after being defeated for re-election in November 1992, though, Bush almost magically transformed into the man we see today.

    I’ll never forget that only about 2 months after leaving the trapping of the Presidency, 41 was on the Tonight Show telling the story about how Barbara was ready to kill him because he dropped a “Sam’s Club sized” jar of jam on the floor while making the grandkids Peanut butter and Jelly sandwiches.

    He and Barbara spent 20 minutes cleaning it up.

    Somehow the mental image of a former President of the United States on his hands and knees in the kitchen cleaning up jam seemed almost surreal.

    The fact that when Leno asked him what was going on, that was the highlight of his life that week was even more surreal. (not to mention buying jam at Sam’s.)

    He does have the best of all possible worlds.

    I never thought of him as the “Greatest living ex-President” but you might be right.

  4. jen says:

    He’s the coolest former President, imho.

    My first presidential vote was for Bush 41 in 1988 (I was just shy of 18 in 1984 and unable to vote for Reagan as I wanted). While I agree that he was a mediocre President, even then there was something about the man that I just liked.

    Today, he very much reminds me of my grandfather, who is 85. I get all misty whenever I see him on TV. It doesn’t matter in what context he appears, just the mere sight of him makes me gooey. I adore them and others of their generation.

  5. Moe Lane says:

    “Almost immediately after being defeated for re-election in November 1992, though, Bush almost magically transformed into the man we see today. He’s amazingly magnanimous and self deprecating.”

    I’m sure that all of that is a comfort to all those Iraqis who got themselves killed for believing that Bush Senior would support the same revolution that explicitly call for.

    In other words, f*ck George HW Bush; the son is twice the President and man that the father was, or will ever be.

  6. Moe Lane says:

    Replace “that explicitly call for” with “that he explicitly called for”.

  7. alan says:

    If you think Prime Ministers have it easy, check out the bags under Paul Martin’s eyes. It’s all fun and games ’til your own party turns on you like a mad dog.

  8. And he isn’t hawking Viagra.

  9. M. Murcek says:

    Bush 41 may have disappointed on domestic issues, but he managed to keep the shutdown of the Soviet Union from spiralling out of control. Nothing mediocre about that…

  10. Steve says:

    Greatest and most beloved ex-president:
    I vote for George Washington.
    “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

  11. Attila Girl says:

    There is something very likeable about both Presidents Bush. H.W. was a better talker, and W. is a far better President.

  12. James Joyner says:

    Steve,

    Sure. I mean based on what they did in their post-presidential lives. Certainly, other ex-presidents were more beloved based on their earlier contributions.

  13. Mr. Dart says:

    >>>but there’s a lot to admire about Carter the man. His charitable work, most notably with Habitat for Humanity, and his work as a roving ambassador for peace and democracy has been impressive indeed.

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