History tends to prefer its heroes on horseback, at least figuratively: presidents who dream big and act boldly, bending the present and the future to their wills. There is, however, another kind of hero—quieter, yes, and less glamorous—whose virtues repay our attention. Hero itself comes from the Greek word meaning to defend and to protect, and there is greatness in political lives dedicated more to steadiness than to boldness, more to reform than to revolution, more to the management of complexity than to the making of mass movements. So it was for Eisenhower, and so it was with Bush. Eisenhower’s favorite motto, inscribed on a paperweight he kept on his desk in the Oval Office, was “Gently in manner—strongly in deed.” Bush’s life code, as he once put it in a letter to his mother, was “Tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Be strong. Do your Best. Try hard. Forgive. Stay the course. All that kind of thing.” Simple propositions—deceptively simple, for such sentiments are more easily expressed than embodied in the arena of public life.
Bush believed in the essential goodness of the American people and in the nobility of the American experiment. His understanding of the nation and of the world seems antiquated now; it seemed so in real time, too, at least in the last year or so of his presidency. But there was nothing affected about Bush’s vision of politics as a means to public service, of public service as the highest of callings. This vision—of himself engaged in what Oliver Wendell Holmes called the passion and action of the times—was as real and natural to him as the air he breathed. It was his whole world, and had been since his earliest days when he would watch his father come home from a day on Wall Street only to head back out to run the Greenwich Town Meeting. It was as simple—and as complicated—as that.