Skip to main content

Time to toot horn for George H.W. Bush

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
December 31, 2012 -- Updated 1732 GMT (0132 HKT)
President George H.W. Bush shares a joke with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on December 3, 1989.
President George H.W. Bush shares a joke with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on December 3, 1989.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: George H.W. Bush, 88, must recover to continue to inspire on way to 90
  • Bush has packed much into life: war hero, ambassador, CIA chief, VP, president
  • He says elder Bush not given enough credit for role in shepherding end of Cold War
  • Frum: Bush will not toot own horn; others (Kuwaitis, Eastern Europeans, Americans) should

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including a new novel "Patriots" and his post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

(CNN) -- George H.W. Bush marked his 80th and 85th birthdays with parachute jumps. He said after the second jump: "Just because you're an old guy, you don't have to sit around drooling in the corner. Get out and do something. Get out and enjoy life."

Now 88, Bush has been struggling with serious health concerns, including bronchitis. We need him to recover, to set an example for the world of how a man can mark his 90th.

David Frum
David Frum

The son of a U.S. senator, Bush has been a naval aviator hero, oil millionaire, member of Congress, ambassador to China, CIA director, vice president of the United States and then the president who managed the end of the Cold War. He has lived more life than seems possible for any single human being.

The achievements of that remarkable life are overshadowed by one negative fact: Along with Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush is only one of three 20th-century presidents to have lost re-election. Yet while Hoover's presidency and Carter's are largely regarded as failures by posterity, the judgment on Bush's has become more forgiving over time.

Eighteen months ago, former President Bill Clinton paid this tribute to his predecessor in office:

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



"George W. Bush did me one of the great favors of my life. He asked me, not once,but twice, to work with his father to help people in need: first in South Asia in the tsunami and then in the Gulf Coast after Katrina. All told, we took seven trips together. It was an amazing experience. This man, whom I'd always liked and respected and then run against in a painful campaign in some ways, I literally came to love."

In the years ahead, we will hear more such tributes -- tributes that may at last do justice to a president whose most important accomplishment has been persistently undervalued and misattributed.

In the summer of 1987, President Ronald Reagan visited divided Berlin and urged, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

It was a stirring moment, a stunning speech. In documentaries about the end of the Cold War, that speech always gets prominent attention, as it should. Yet it is also true that after Reagan spoke his words ... nothing much happened. Nothing much happened for a year. Nothing much happened for a second year. Not until deep in 1989, two years later, did the communist system in central Europe begin its implosion: first in Poland, then in Hungary and only in November of 1989 in eastern Germany.

Bush aide: Put the harps away
2009: Bush skydives for 85th birthday
2009: Bush on fall of Berlin Wall

In one ecstatic night, the East German regime's border guards did nothing as local protesters overwhelmed the dividing wall. Then morning came, and Europe confronted the same question it had confronted for half a century: What would Russia do? Since 1945, the Soviet rulers had made clear they would plunge the world into war rather than accept a reunited Germany. In November 1989, they still commanded the power to do just that.

Over the next few months, the Soviets changed their minds. They acquiesced to the surrender of their single most fundamental geopolitical claim. They acquiesced without violence and without getting much of anything in return. In the history of world diplomacy, there has never been a negotiation like this one. That work of negotiation fell not to the eloquent Ronald Reagan but to George H.W. Bush, who never saw a speech he didn't mangle.

There is no "tear down this wall" clip by Bush. But it was during his presidency that the wall was in fact demolished -- and not by some lucky accident but after months of agonizing work by Germans and Americans together.

There's a saying in Hollywood: "He who will not toot his own horn, his horn shall not be tooted." George Herbert Walker Bush is an inveterate non-horn-tooter. He did not toot his horn over the end of the Cold War. He did not toot his own horn over his deficit reductions. He believed that horn-tooting risked alienating the very people whose cooperation had made the accomplishment possible in the first place. Very likely, he was right, too.

As the former president fights off the illness that sent him to the hospital, though, perhaps it would be well if he did hear a few toots from other people's horns: the Germans and other Central Europeans whose progress to freedom his diplomacy assisted; the Kuwaitis who owe their country to him; and too-neglectful Americans, to whom he bequeathed a world more peaceful, more stable and more free.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT