This week we marked the passing of a great man, the 41st president of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush. Tearful talking heads mobbed cable and internet space to pay tribute to a unique individual of leadership and stature commonly described as "the last of a generation."
From WWII hero to gracious and dedicated patriot to loving head of family, Bush's life read and played like a cherished icon all but lost in the ugly, hurly-burly of what passes for political life today. No, Herbert Walker was not without faults through his long campaign to service the American people and ideals. But certainly within the context of these troubled and cantankerous times, his remarkable career, talents and honest integrity seem like invaluable standards of public life that desperately need to be reclaimed.
I will never forget the levity and wisdom of Alan Simpson delivered during the state funeral concerning the core of his long friendship with Bush, as well as the sense of the Wyoming senator's assessment of the former president's greatness and respectability. Here are the memorable words Simpson used to underscore Bush's unique march of power, bipartisanship and constructive gentility: "Those that travel the high road of humility in Washington, D.C., are not bothered by heavy traffic."
Not only was the famously wry and ironic legislator honoring H.W. for his lack of defensive pride and unwavering willingness to reexamine basic principles if they endangered the greater good, Simpson snapped the joke with the notoriously prideful and cock-sure Donald Trump stolidly rocking in the very first pew.
To be clear, I'm not here to lament why President Trump can't be more like his admirable predecessor. You can make that call on your own. Perhaps you find Trump's white horse attitude long overdue, thankfully replacing Bush's get-along style that some critics once found so milquetoast as to call him a "wimp."
But, for now, let's at least be truthful enough to admit that virtually all recent tributes to Herbert Walker Bush have implied rather harsh comparisons with our sitting president with his imperious hair, fake news reactions, and unorthodox sense of executive authority. Right or wrong, so many have said and are saying, "Why can't Donald be more like good old George?"
Again, that's your complicated puzzle to sort through. Good luck.
For the moment, I'm more interested in two characteristics of the outstanding individual once elected as the 41st president, and how these oft-cited attributes worked (or did not) to recommend his administration as a true and progressive servant of agriculture.
Let's start with Bush's incredible resume, an embodiment of job-training and admiration for diversity previously untouched in the annals of American history. Navy pilot, oil man, congressman, CIA director, U.S. vice president, chairman of the Republican Party, secretary of the United Nations, ambassador to China, U.S. president.
Such an aggressive roll call with each turn met with enthusiasm, dedication, and ambition makes those of us who've stuck with the same old stack of chores for decades feel as boring as a professional striper of streets.
I need to quickly plead ignorance regarding H.W.'s specific efforts in shaping ag policy over his life in public office. Historians will no doubt highlight his greatest successes in terms of foreign policy. George W.'s small cattle herd notwithstanding, the Bush family probably saluted more of a patrician ideal than one of the wide open prairie.
Yet given the fact that George H.W. made Texas his beloved home since the late 1950s, it would be absolutely naive to think he was not a fast friend to the livestock industry as well as the long-term friend of agricultural growth (especially as it flourished in terms of global trade growth).
Please pardon my inability to currently list footnotes in this regard that are no doubt very impressive.
On the other hand, I'm more confident regarding the ag contribution of Bush's second characteristic: his famous dedication to humility, self-effacement and unflinching support of expertise, the big picture outside the Oval Office, and the critical importance of America's leadership role in the free world's economic welfare and expansion.
The presidential archives may not feature too many pictures of George and Barbara picking corn or slopping hogs, but library shelves will groan for years to come thanks to the weight of thoughtful policies regarding the necessary future plans for U.S. agriculture. Consider just three examples in that regard, real samples of how seriously Herbert Walker Bush took the successful march of farmers and ranchers:
EARLY NAFTA ADVOCATE: Although the agreement was not ratified until after he left office in 1989, Bush also signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which created a trade bloc consisting of the United States, Canada and Mexico. On the verge of renewal, this trading bloc remains the most powerful and fruitful economic exchange in the world.
SIGNIFICANT EXPANDER OF LEGAL IMMIGRATION: President Bush signed the Immigration Act of 1990, which led to a 40% increase in legal immigration to the United States. Talk about "the wall" all you want, but the damaging shortage of workers to man packing plants and interstate highways was anticipated a long, long time ago.
POSSIBLY APPOINTED THE SMARTEST USDA CHIEF IN THE HISTORY OF THE DEPARTMENT: Clayton Yeutter was a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln from which he received a B.S., a J.D. and a Ph.D. in agricultural economics. This outstanding businessman, champion of global trade, and keen student of farm markets served as secretary of agriculture under Bush from February 1989 until February 1991. By dismantling the disaster payment system of the 1980s and replacing it with ambitious efforts based on international demand, Yeutter (given a free rein by Bush) played a key role in this country's dynamic world trading future.
Again, George H.W. Bush never let his own ego get in the way of seeing the big picture for agriculture or never stopped short of tapping the greatest talents in the field of progressive policy, letting the spotlights of deserving credit flood where they may.
Sometime around 1987, when Bush was running for the Republican nomination against Reagan, his reluctance to brag was interpreted by critics as an inability to inspire. Predictably, Bush dismissed such silly talk as that "vision thing." He no doubt thought that any shortcoming he had in painting rainbows and pots of gold could be offset by plain, old hard work and selfless, patriotic teamwork.
I guess the "vision thing," like so many standards and ideals, is not what it used to be when this humble man first surveyed with cautious confidence a thousand points of light so many years ago. Yet to suggest that H.W. was not an agriculture visionary is to mistake what a successful future demands and what a truly firm understanding of people, power and cooperation our old president held with such style.
-- John A. Harrington
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