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The Greatest Generation’s Greatest

by on December 13, 2018 5:00 AM

Last week we paid our respects to President George H.W. Bush in a manner fitting for a man of his stature in our history. As with all historical figures, the passage of time gives us more context and perspective on the leaders in our country and world. In the case of President Bush, time has opened our eyes to fully see a principled life and legacy.

I met then-Vice President Bush when my father was asked to second his nomination for president at the 1988 Republican National Convention. After that night's session, we were brought to his suite where the vice president of the United States and nominee for president was asking if anyone needed anything and walking to the bar to get drinks for his guests.

Amid this momentous time in his life, he showed his natural absence of ego. He didn’t turn to say “Someone get them a drink.” In simple, small acts we often see threads of a person’s character tapestry whose true colors will later show vividly under the bright light of challenge and controversy.

What George Bush represents is an era of loyalty and service to his country. He represents political courage to make decisions and act for the good of the country over personal or party political gain. He believed you exercised power to accomplish good and not to consolidate more power. The bigger the challenge, the more his character showed through, even to the point of making a major decision that would potentially cost him a second term. He stood with a square jaw and did what he knew to be right for America.

For that President George H.W. Bush will always remain a personal hero.

He and my father were friends for roughly 30 years. One thing that stands out was an unlikely invitation. President Bush knew my father was about to start paratrooper school in the Army when World War II ended. So he called and asked if my 78-year-old father wanted to finally make his first skydive with him on Bush’s 80th birthday.

The roots of their World War II generation’s excellence grew from soil rich in values and commitment. Those values drove unselfish service to family, friends and to the work of their lives for the country or institutions they served. They valued action, teamwork with all to accomplish great things, not for personal gain or greed, but for the good of our nation.

George H.W. Bush was a man of substantive leadership. There was more to public and private life than claiming victory or spinning everything to make himself look good. When he came out ahead he did not spike the ball, and showed respect to worthy political opponents. He knew temporary political adversaries were also fellow citizens he might need on his side in the future, so he did not seek to embarrass or alienate anyone.

He respected dissent, knowing that a difference of opinion did not make someone any less American or any less of a patriot. And when things did not go his way, he respected the outcome and wished the opposition success in their moment of leadership.

In the waning days of Bush’s presidency,  just days before he was to leave office, former Merrill Lynch CEO Bill Schreyer and my father saw him in the Oval Office. Around them things were starting to be moved for the change in leadership.

My father recalled to me how striking a moment it was. Here at the place of so much power in one man, the minute acts of an orderly transfer of government were taking place right around them. At the center of it all President Bush was talking about his respect for the process, the outcome of the election. And at that very moment U.S. fighter jets were above Iraq enforcing a no-fly zone per the terms of surrender in the Gulf War. He intended to keep leading to make sure that President-elect Clinton would assume the reins in as orderly a manner as possible.

And to me what will always stand out most is his unwavering loyalty. That theme was repeated over and over at many of the speeches and eulogies that were delivered last week. It really hit home.

When the hounds of the media were barking the false narratives of accusation and recrimination at Joe Paterno, Bush picked up the phone and called. He let my father know that he knew Joe’s character well enough to ignore the slanderous lies being thrown like rocks at his friend. That simple act spoke volumes about loyalty as a light in a friend’s darkest hour.

In an age where many value brash false bravado over character and substance, Bush’s example of public service and leadership reminds us of America at our best. Under Bush, American leadership in the world was built upon action consistent with the words we spoke, the values we professed. Revisiting Bush’s leadership reminded America to remain a friend to allies while making our goals clear to adversaries with an understanding that peace’s doorway remains open.

President George H.W. Bush remains one of the great leaders of his era and remains a true hero to so many. He will be missed. But let us hope that the example of his life will long live in the hearts of so many for whom he remained the ultimate example of his generation’s greatness.



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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