Assessing the legacy of George H.W. Bush

“You can’t be afraid of failure,” former U.S. President George H.W. Bush told graduates during the 1998 commencement ceremony, held on the green space in front of UM’s Richter Library. Bush received an honorary doctor of public service.
By Robert C. Jones Jr.

“You can’t be afraid of failure,” former U.S. President George H.W. Bush told graduates during the 1998 commencement ceremony, held on the green space in front of UM’s Richter Library. Bush received an honorary doctor of public service.

Assessing the legacy of George H.W. Bush

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
Former UM students and current faculty members recall the 41st president’s visit to campus and his political impact.

Nicole Frisbie got the news early Saturday via News Feed: George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the United States who helped end a four-decade U.S.-Soviet Cold War that came with the threat of nuclear engagement, had passed away at the age of 94. 

Frisbie knew that Bush, a decorated Navy pilot who was shot down in the Pacific in 1944, had been in poor health. But still, his death hit close to home for her. 

Twenty years ago, she was among the hundreds of University of Miami graduating students at the institution’s spring commencement who witnessed Bush accept an honorary doctor of public service and listened as he told them to “dream big dreams.” 

“You can’t be afraid of failure,” Bush told graduates at that 1998 ceremony, held on the green space in front of UM’s Richter Library. “You have the whole world out there waiting for you. No matter what path you choose in life, don’t waste time.” 

His words resonated with Frisbie, who is now director of business operations in UM’s College of Arts and Sciences. 

“His stature and his tone were down to earth,” she recalled. “He provided sage advice on how to be a steward of life, and it was the way he conducted himself and delivered his message that made an impression on me. Here was a former U.S. president that I could relate to as a grandfather figure.” 

Bush, father of the 43rd U.S. president, George W. Bush, and Florida’s 43rd governor, Jeb Bush, also made an impression on Tracy Pottker-Fishel, who received a Bachelor of Fine Arts at that ceremony, where Bush’s wife, Barbara, also spoke and was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. 

“He spoke of his service days in the military,” recalled Pottker-Fishel, now a communication specialist for UM’s Student Center Complex. “And his wife was wonderful, talking about the importance of literacy and reading to children.” 

The day before the ceremony, Pottker-Fishel’s mother and father, who served as managing director of the Federal Communications Commission under the elder Bush, greeted Bush at Coral Gables’ historic Biltmore Hotel, where the former president resided during his brief stay in town for UM’s 1998 spring graduation. “They were all on an elevator together,” Pottker-Fishel said, relaying the encounter as told to her by her mother. “My mom turned to Bush and told him how much she was looking forward to hearing his speech.”

Bush and his wife “were incredibly gracious to everyone at UM that they met,” said Patricia A. Whitely, vice president for student affairs who was part of the commencement stage party when Bush spoke on campus. “It was an absolute honor to meet them and have them participate in our commencement.”

Miami Hurricanes at the Bush White House

Bush honored UM’s 1989 and 1991 national championship football teams at the White House.

As the nation mourns its 41st president in a series of memorial services this week, including Wednesday’s state funeral at Washington National Cathedral, where George W. Bush will eulogize his father, academics and political experts continue to comment on the legacy of the one-term president, who served in the White House from 1989 to 1993, guiding the nation through a tumultuous period in world affairs. 

“He’ll be remembered for a lifetime of public service to his country,” said Gregory Koger, a political science professor in UM’s College of Arts and Sciences. “His presidential term was one in which he took great risks on behalf of the national interests, sometimes in defiance of his own party. He was a great diplomat who successfully led the country through the first Gulf War by stitching together an immense international coalition that joined in the effort either through the contribution of troops or money.” 

The last of the World War II generation to serve as president, Bush, said Koger, was underrated as a president. “His own party doesn’t hold him up as a model,” he explained. “They’re much more likely to talk about the Reagan presidency than the Bush presidency. In the short term, that undervalues him. But in the long run his diplomatic success and his willingness to put the national interests above his own political interests will stand out as a remarkable act of civic virtue.” 

Before he became the nation’s 41st president, Bush was a Texas congressman, ambassador to the United Nations, director of the CIA, and vice president to Ronald Reagan. As president, Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act and played a pivotal role in the passage of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, creating the first cap and trade program. 

“His support of the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act was significant in enhancing the regulation of acid rain and regional haze, air quality and toxic air pollution, and ozone depleting substances, and in bolstering urban environmental health more generally,” said Anthony V. Alfieri, professor of law and director of both the Center for Ethics and Public Service and the Environmental Justice Clinic at UM. 

“At the time, many pointed out that heightened environmental awareness in America and abroad increased the pressure on the president and Congress to enact strong and comprehensive clean air legislation,” said Alfieri. “In the three decades since the passage of those important amendments, it is disappointing that bipartisan support for such national environmental health initiatives has seemingly vanished, especially given the rising economic and health threats posed by climate change.” 

Bush also headed the United States Liaison Office in Beijing between 1974 and 1975, serving as an unofficial ambassador at a time when the U.S. and China were not engaged in full diplomatic relations. 

“He was there at a time when China was still a very closed country. Diplomats in Beijing would sometimes say they had to go to Hong Kong to find out what was going on in Beijing just because sources of information weren’t there,” said June Teufel Dreyer, an expert on Chinese politics who is a professor of political science at UM. “George Bush came away with the idea that he had somehow learned to understand China when he was there, and that definitely shaped his China policy when he was president.” 

In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre of student protestors on June 4, 1989, the Bush administration imposed sanctions on the Chinese government, suspending arms sales and military exchanges. But in secret, Bush sent National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger to Beijing less than a month after the incident in a move to smooth over relations—a decision criticized by many. 

“I imagine this will be one of those situations that historians and future generations will not agree with each other on,” said Dryer. “But that’s what academics do—they disagree with each other.” 

President Trump has designated December 5 a national day of mourning for Bush.