George H.W. Bush showed his character in one phone call

One day in 1982, when I was still a young intelligence analyst at the Department of State following Lebanon and the Palestinians, the phone rang in my office. It was the White House situation room on the line.

WASHINGTON – MAY 6: U.S. President George W. Bush (R) and his father, former U.S. President George Bush (L) wave as the leave a family wedding at St. John’s Episcopal Church May 6, 2006 in Washington, DC. Alexander Ellis, son of George W. Bush’s cousin, married Sarah Aker. (Photo by Normand Blouin-Pool/Getty Images)

Shortly after the operator told me to hold, I heard George H.W. Bush, who was the vice president to Ronald Reagan at the time, say, “Aaron, I know you’re busy, but I read one of your memos on Lebanon. Do you have a few minutes to chat? I’m sorry to bother but I have a lot of questions.”

Full Coverage: Death of George H.W. Bush

Bush’s death Friday night should remind us all that the essential qualities in a president, along with the inevitable flaws and imperfections, are what define a presidency. And that day, after hanging up the phone, I was struck by a couple of them.

First, there was the sheer humility and decency of Bush’s demeanor and attitude that morning.

There was also his curiosity. Bush, who won the presidential election in 1988 after eight years as vice president, knew what he didn’t know, and he showed a strong desire and urgency to find out. The desire to learn what you don’t know, rather than basing decisions on what you already do, is an essential quality of leadership.

It also reflects the fact that you take the job seriously and shows a great responsibility to maintaining a high standard of professionalism and discipline. Those qualities can give a president both the confidence to act based on sound empirical evidence, and a knowledge of when to hold back given uncertainties.

Bush’s decision not to invade Iraq after pushing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait was one example of that mix of prudence and wisdom. Criticized by some as not finishing the job, that restraint — given the calamities that would embroil his son in Iraq in 2003 — was clearly a critically important inflection point in the Bush presidency.

There are many ways to assess Bush’s presidency. There are the superlatives, of course. He was the first vice president to accede directly to the highest office since Martin Van Buren, after Andrew Jackson, and the first president since John Adams whose son would also become president.

Bush also marked the last time a two-term president (in his case, Ronald Reagan), passed on the office to a member of his own party. He was also the last US president to have served in combat. Bush, along with his beloved wife Barbara, who died in April this year, also hold the record for longest marriage in presidential history: 73 years.

There are the accomplishments, which include navigating the end of the Cold War, his support for Germany’s reunification and signing the 1991 START agreement, along with the passing of the American Disabilities Act and important amendments to the Clean Air Act.

There were also, of course, setbacks and failures. Bush’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, John Tower, was rejected, marking the first time in in 30 years Congress would deny a president his Cabinet choice. Bush’s presidency was also marred by the White House attack on Anita Hill during the confirmation of Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas.

He ultimately lost the presidential election in 1992, and the brilliant military campaign that pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait could not soften the harsh domestic realities of high unemployment rates and the public perception that he was out of touch with average Americans.

But looking back now, it seems that the real significance of the Bush presidency, particularly against the background of the depressing, demoralizing and demeaning aspects of today’s politics, was the matter of character.

Sadly, Bush now seems like a president of a bygone era, as a man of deep experience, selflessness and duty.

While his mission in life was certainly driven by personal ambition, it was always tethered to a broader goal of service and obligation to a nation he loved. Together with the passing of John McCain, Bush’s death reminds us of what’s often missing in today’s politics — the service and bipartisanship required to lead a nation through difficult times.

In a moment of self-reflection at the end of the first year of his presidency, Bush wrote in his diary, “I’m certainly not seen as visionary. But I hope I’m seen as steady, prudent and able.”

He was certainly that and more — a president like so many of our best who instinctively knew that to lead was to put the well-being and security of the republic above his own. We mourn Bush’s passing with sadness and hope that his character, commitment, and basic decency will once again be reflected in the presidency he honored and valued so.