George Herbert Walker Bush, 1924-2018.

“I come before you and assume the Presidency at a moment rich with promise. We live in a peaceful, prosperous time, but we can make it better. For a new breeze is blowing, and a world refreshed by freedom seems reborn; for in man’s heart, if not in fact, the day of the dictator is over. The totalitarian era is passing, its old ideas blown away like leaves from an ancient, lifeless tree. A new breeze is blowing, and a nation refreshed by freedom stands ready to push on. There is new ground to be broken, and new action to be taken.– George Herbert Walker Bush, Inaugural address, January 1989

U.S. Presidents hold a formal set of responsibilities (versus powers), as spelled out in the Constitution – and as augmented over time by national exigency. But in addition to mandated roles such as Chief Executive and Chief of State they also are judged by ideals enshrined not in law so much as tradition. One of these has been that of Chief Citizen:

The president as chief citizen is supposed to be the face of the people, and represent his people as the popular leader. The president must be trustworthy and work for the public interest. The president must put the nations [sic] best interests above himself and one person or one group of people.

Presidents, though imperfect in this and other respects (for they all human and therefore flawed, no better and no worse than you and me), to varying degrees see the office less as an ascent to power and more as a call to service.With a few notable exceptions, this call had been lifelong – beginning in government and elected office at a local or state level, or perhaps the military – not any spur-of-the-moment whim. President G. H. W. Bush embodied this.  His resume included military service in combat, a stint in Congress, ambassador to the United Nations, Chief of the U. S. Liaison Office to the People’s Republic of China (relations weren’t ready for an ambassador at the time), Director the CIA, and Vice President. (Whew!)

That history explains the background sound you and I awoke to this morning. It is the sound of 320-million Americans exhaling – getting a chance to express and exercise a desire they’ve been holding in for far too long – the desire to praise and see the positive in a leader instead of finding fault. It is the rustle of the morning papers and the voices of the news desk anchors and the buzz of social media as journalists of every persuasion rise to honor the man and his work – and incidentally the country and the people he honored (by taking so seriously his role as Chief Citizen, and considering that foundational and not antithetical to his day job). Millions, perhaps billions, of such words of praise and observance are already online. More are being penned, typed, and voiced hourly. And Americans everywhere are applauding what they hear (and their memories of the time and the man).

Joining the trend, this and the next three posts will contribute four President-Bush vignettes. Each illuminates important, but not necessarily the most important, of his contributions. Instead each was selected because they made a personal impression, and because they partially address the dilemma described in the previous LOTRW blogpost– the widening gap between (1) scientists’ growing understanding of the nature and causes of climate change, and the accompanying and growing risks; and (2) the needed individual, local, and national actions to forestall the worst of the coming problems.

Vignette 1. “This is the most important speech I will make in my presidency.”President Bush spoke these words not to the thousands assembled on the Mall for his inauguration, but a week or two later, in the DAR Constitution Hall. Behind him on the stage, the members of his Cabinet. His audience? Several thousand members of the career Senior Executive Service. Every SES’er in the DC area had been summoned.(Yes, the call was stronger than an invitation; it was an instruction.)

The interior of Constitution Hall. I sat in the cheap seats, in the back, but it was a privilege to be in the room.

That was the President’s opening. He went on to add that he’d worked for years with the career civil service and came away from the experience uniformly impressed. He said he found the millions of career federal employees, managers, and executives to be dedicated, service-oriented, patriotic, high-minded, productive, and essential to the country. He said that his accomplishments and those of his Cabinet (because he was admonishing them even as he encouraged us) would depend upon our work.  He talked about trusting us – and listening to and learning from us.

He added this touch – saying he’d won the office because his SF-171 (until January 1995, the required application form for Federal employment) was better than that of his opponent.

There was more, but you get the idea. When we all walked out of that building, I’d have gone through fire for him. (Okay, okay. To know me is to recognize I’m susceptible to that kind of talk, but I’d wager I wasn’t alone that day.)

Put that together with the passage from his inaugural address, and the message to those of us working on global change (whether in the federal government, or in the private sector) is simply, and powerfully, this:

  • Democracy has won the global competition with totalitarian governments of a variety of forms for human allegiance. The day of the dictator is over. (Optimism isn’t so rampant on this point today as it may have been then, but that’s still the secular trend. We all yearn to live free.)
  • Trust is vital, and in fact given. Those responsible for making a better world with respect to elimination of poverty, improving public health and safety, education (and global change and the environment) are empowered to take ownership and make progress as fast as practicable. Pick any issue – the majority of us will be focused on something else – but we trust you. In fact, we’re counting on you. Leaders can and should always set this tone. For the most part, they are. You and I are empowered to work on what matters, and where and in ways we can best contribute. If we all do our bit, in our specialized corner of human affairs, the world will trend to a better place.

“A peaceful, prosperous time… we can make it better… A new breeze is blowing, and a nation refreshed by freedom stands ready to push on. There is new ground to be broken, and new action to be taken [including with respect to climate change].”

Well said, Mr. President! More on how he backed up those words with respect to climate change in the next LOTRW post. But in the meantime, you and I need to remember:

We’re free to act, on climate change and every other issue. Nothing is holding us back.

 

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