James A. Baker

Eulogy for George H.W. Bush

delivered 6 December 2018, St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas

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[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio]

My friends, we're here today in the house of the Lord to say goodbye to a man of great faith and great integrity, a truly beautiful human being; and to honor his noble character, his life of service, and the sweet memories he leaves for his friends, his family, and for our grateful nation.

For more than 60 years, George Herbert Walker Bush has been my friend, and he's been my role model. Today, as we entrust his soul to heaven, his name to history, and his memory to our hearts, I must begin with an apology. Jefe, I'm about to do something you always hated, and that your mother always told you not to do: brag about yourself. I will do this because it must be done; and because, as a lawyer, I see that thing beloved by all lawyers -- a loophole.

Now, don't brag -- "don't brag about yourself," you once wrote. "Let others point out your virtues, your good points."1 Well, today, Mr. President, I am that "other," with the special privilege and joy of sharing your good points.

As we have heard and as we know, George Bush was a charter member of the Greatest Generation. As we gather here to salute him, his incredible service to our nation and the world are already etched in the marble of time.

After becoming the youngest naval aviator, he served in increasingly responsible positions on behalf of his country: Congressman, Ambassador to China, and to the United Nations. Director of the CIA, and Vice President.

Then, as history will faithfully record, he became one of our nation's finest Presidents; and beyond any doubt, our nation's very best one-term President. For millions and millions across the globe, the world became a better place because George Bush occupied the White House for four years.

He was not considered a skilled speaker, but his deeds were quite eloquent; and he demonstrated their eloquence by carving them into the hard granite of history. They expressed his moral character, and they reflected his decency, his boundless kindness and consideration of others, his determination always to do the right thing, and always to do that to the very best of his ability.

They testify to a life nobly lived.

He possessed the classic virtues of our civilization and of his faith -- the same virtues that express what is really best about this country. These same ideals were known to and they were shared by our Founding Fathers. George Bush was temperate in thought, in word, and in deed. He considered his choices and then he chose wisely.

The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, less than one year into his presidency. It was a remarkable triumph for American foreign policy. As joyous East and West Germans danced on the remains of that hated wall, George Bush could have joined them metaphorically and claimed victory for the West, for America, and frankly, for himself.

But he did not. He knew better. He understood that humility toward -- and not humiliation of -- a fallen adversary was the very best path to peace and reconciliation; and so he was able to unify Germany as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, notwithstanding the initial reservations of France, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union. Thus, the Cold War ended, not with a bang but with the sound of a halyard rattling through a pulley over the Kremlin on a cool night in December 1991, as the flag of the Soviet Union was lowered for the very last time.

Need we ask about George Bush's courage during World War II? He risked his life in defense of something greater than himself.

Decades later, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990 and began to brutalize Kuwaitis, George Bush never wavered. "This will not stand," he said,2 and he got the rest of the world to join him in reversing that aggression.

Yes, he had the courage of a warrior.

But when the time came for prudence, he always maintained the greater courage of a peacemaker. He ended the wars in Central America; he signed two nuclear arms reduction treaties; and he brought Israel and all of its Arab neighbors together face-to-face for the first time to talk peace.

His deeds for his fellow man always spoke for him.

“Give someone else a hand," he would say -- and he did.

“When a friend is hurting, show that you care," he would say -- and he did.

“Be kind to people," he would say -- and he was.

To the parents of a young son who lost -- of a young son lost to cancer, he wrote, "I hope you will live the rest of your lives with only happy memories of that wonderful son who is now safely tucked in, God's loving arms around him." His wish for a "kinder...gentler nation"3 was not a cynical political slogan. It came honest and unguarded from his soul.

After they left the White House, George and Barbara Bush continued to display their compassion for others. Their dedication to the Points of Light, the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, and countless other charities, is a model for all former first families past, present, and future.

To these virtues, we can add one more source of his character: his family. As a friend once put it, George Bush believed that family is a source of both personal strength and the values one needs to face life. And of course, history has shown that few families have accomplished as much as his has.

Barbara wrote the book on how to be a great First Lady. His legacy lives on with his children, who have contributed so very much to making our nation great. And who knows what the future will bring for his grandchildren and their children.

I've always been proud that George Bush used to describe our relationship as one of "big brother and little brother." He used to say that one of the things he liked best about me was that I would always tell him what I thought, even when I knew he didn't want to hear it. Then we would have a spirited discussion about that issue.

But he had a very effective way of letting me know when the discussion was over. He would look at me and he'd say, "Baker, if you're so smart, why am I President and you're not?"

He was -- He was a leader, and he knew it. My hope is that in remembering the life of George Herbert Walker Bush, and in honoring his accomplishments, we will see that we are really praising what is best about our nation -- the nation he dearly loved and whose values he embodied.

There is more to say than time permits, and anyway, when measured against the eloquence of George Bush's character and life, our words are very inadequate. And so I conclude these remarks with his words, written some years ago to his old tennis buddy.

“We have known each other a long time," he wrote to me.

We have shared joy and sadness. and time has indeed gone swiftly by. Now it races on even faster, and that makes me treasure even more this line of William Butler Yates about where man's glory begins and ends, namely with friends.4 My glory is I have you as such a friend.

To which I reply on behalf of his friends here today, across America, and throughout the world: We rejoice, Mr. President, that you are safely tucked in now and through the ages, with God's loving arms around you. Because our glory, George, was to have had you as our President and as such a friend.

1 Letter to Sam Palmisano, Advice Item #5

2 Remarks and an Exchange With Reporters on the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait August 5, 1990. Fuller quotation: "I'm not going to discuss what we're doing in terms of moving of forces, anything of that nature. But I view it very seriously, not just that but any threat to any other countries, as well as I view very seriously our determination to reverse out this aggression. And please believe me, there are an awful lot of countries that are in total accord with what I've just said, and I salute them. They are staunch friends and allies, and we will be working with them all for collective action. This will not stand. This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait." (emphasis added) [Source: https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/110704]

3 From George H.W. Bush's 1988 Republican National Convention Acceptance Address. Fuller quotation: "There's such a thing as reliable love. Some would say it's soft and insufficiently tough to care about these things. But where is it written that we must act as if we do not care, as if we are not moved? Well I am moved. I want a kinder, and gentler nation." (emphasis added). In addition, Bush's Inaugural Address contained this line: "America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the Nation and gentler the face of the world." (emphasis added)

4 You that would judge me, do not judge alone
This book or that, come to this hallowed place
Where my friends' portraits hang and look thereon;
Ireland's history in their lineaments trace;
Think where man's glory most begins and ends
And say my glory was I had such friends.

Yeats, W. The Municipal Gallery Revisited, st. 7 [Source: https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-municipal-gallery-revisited/]

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Page Updated: 2/5/24

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