Bush as the necessary model of a public servant

His long career from military pilot to president leaves a legacy of service badly needed in an era of distrust of public institutions.

President George H.W. Bush gets up close with kids at the Shiloh Baptist Church day care center in Washington on May 9, 1989.

If a common thread can be found in the tributes for George H.W. Bush, it is his role in elevating the dignity of public service. Policy leadership, such as the late president’s guiding hand at the end of the cold war, was almost secondary to what is termed today “servant leadership.”

Or as Mr. Bush simply called it, “pitching in.”

From war hero to congressman to CIA director to diplomat to vice president and president, he was a model of that honorable profession known as career government worker. Even in his passing, Americans were reminded about being of service to others in the photo of Sully, his service dog in later years, lying beside his coffin.

Bush chose Texas A&M University, in College Station, as the site of his presidential library in part because of its school in public administration. Since 2000, his foundation has given awards to world leaders for “excellence in public service.” Last year he assembled other living former presidents to join in fundraising for aid relief after hurricane Harvey. He also left behind a legacy of two sons with their own records as high elected officials.

Bush saw politics – despite its worst aspects – as a means for public service, not as a vehicle for money, fame, or personal power. Perhaps he was inspired by a father who volunteered to run town meetings in their community. In his tribute, President Barack Obama said the late president’s life “is a testament to the notion that public service is a noble, joyous calling.” Or as Bush himself said in 1992, “I saw a chance to help and I did.”

In an era of high distrust of government and a decline in volunteering among Americans, his record should be a reminder of the need for more people to help citizens and communities with practical skills and selfless humility. In 2017, Congress was so worried about the state of the nation’s civic health that it set up a panel called the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. Its 11 members are crisscrossing the United States looking for ways to inspire young people to serve the country in some way. Its recommendations are due in 2020.

In October, another notable civil servant, Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, came out with a memoir, “Keeping at It: The Quest for Sound Money and Good Government.” In it he writes, “One cannot sit here in 2018 without a strong sense of concern about ... the state of public service.” He has formed a nonpartisan think tank, the Volcker Alliance, aimed at strengthening professional education for public service.

But not all is bleak. In a survey of 1,000 “rising government leaders” released earlier this year, the Volcker Alliance found about 75 percent report they intend to continue in government for the long term and that they work among trusted peers. More than 80 percent said their work requires “fostering a culture of responsive service to the public.” 

At root, service to others is a reflection of a higher good. That good can best be seen in the civic virtues of exemplary public servants. Bush senior was certainly one of those. But as his wife, Barbara, might have reminded him, it is better to inspire others to such a calling than call attention to one’s own deeds.

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