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Opinion The George H.W. Bush presidency: A beacon of friendship, accomplishment and respect

The following is the Hon. Brian Mulroney’s speech after he received the George Bush Award for Excellence in Kennebunkport, Me., on Sept 28, 2018:

President George H. W. Bush’s life and career exemplify what is best about America – what has made America admired over so many decades – so it is a privilege to receive this award that celebrates his name, his leadership and his accomplishments on the world stage. I will do so by telling you something of the George Bush I have known well for 35 years.

Graduating from Phillips Andover Academy in 1942, George Bush immediately enlisted in the U.S. Navy as an aviator at the age of 18. He was commissioned, three days shy of his 19th birthday, making him at the time the youngest naval aviator in the service.

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On a particular September day, Lieutenant Bush’ squadron encountered intense anti-aircraft fire. His aircraft was hit by flak and though his engine was ablaze he completed his mission and dropped his bombs over the target before the flames finally forced him to eject.

His crew lost, he waited four excruciating hours in the dangerous waters of the Pacific praying he would be rescued by his countrymen rather than be taken prisoner by the Empire of Japan. Finally, after what must have seemed an eternity, the USS Finback broke the surface of the Pacific and hauled him aboard to safety.

Many men of differing talents and skills have served as president and many more will do so as the decades unfold, bringing new strength and glory to these United States of America.

And 50 or 100 years from now, as historians review the accomplishments and context of all who have served as president of this nation, I believe it will be said that, in the life of this great republic, no occupant of the Oval Office was more courageous, more principled and more honorable than George Herbert Walker Bush.

As Prime Minister of Canada for almost nine years, I worked as closely with George Bush as Vice-President and President as any other leader in the world - perhaps even more so. I saw him privately, up close, when great decisions of peace and war were made. I saw him at crucial G7 summits around the world, at NATO meetings in times of crisis and conflict - and around the swimming pool at Kennebunkport when our major problem was explaining to a skeptical media why the fish had avoided us for another day.

President Truman used to say that "a page of history is worth of volume of logic".

Well, let’s look at it.

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In the second year of the Bush presidency, responding to implacable pressures from the Reagan and Bush administrations, the Soviet Union imploded. This was the most epochal political event of the 20th century.

An ominous situation that could have become extremely menacing to world security was instead deftly channelled by the leadership of President Bush into the broad and powerful currents of freedom, providing the Russian people with the opportunity to build an embryonic democracy in a country that had been ruled by czars and tyrants for a thousand years.

As the Berlin Wall collapsed soon thereafter and calls for freedom cascaded across central and Eastern Europe, leaving dictators and dogma in the trashcan of history, no challenge assumed greater importance and acuity for Western solidarity than the unification of Germany within a strong European Community and an unswerving NATO. But old fears in Western Europe and unrelenting hostility by the military establishment in the U.S.S.R. and the Warsaw Pact rendered this initiative among the most complex and sensitive ever undertaken. One serious misstep and the entire process could have been compromised, perhaps irretrievably.

There is obviously no more knowledgeable or competent judge of what really happened at this most vital juncture of 20th century history than Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany himself. In a speech to a parliamentary commission, he said categorically that this historic initiative of German reunification and the peace that followed could never have succeeded without the brilliant leadership of President George Bush.

Much has been written about the first Gulf War. Simply put, the coalition of 29 disparate countries assembled under the aegis of the United Nations – including for the first time many influential Arab countries – and led by the United States will rank with the most spectacular and successful international initiatives ever undertaken in modern history, designed to punish an aggressor, defend the cause of freedom and ensure order in a region that had seen too much of the opposite for far too long. This highly successful initiative was President Bush’s from beginning to end.

President Bush's decision, to go forward with strong environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Act that resulted in an Acid Rain Accord with Canada, is a splendid gift to future generations of Americans and Canadians to savour in the air they breathe, the water they drink, the forests they relish, and the lakes, rivers and streams they cherish.

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This visionary activity was initiated by President George H. W. Bush.

President Bush’s compassionate leadership and bipartisan cooperation with Senators Tom Harkin and Ted Kennedy resulted in one of the most seminal pieces of social legislation since World War II – the Americans with Disabilities Act.

This revolutionized American society and attitudes in favour of these forgotten millions living with severe disabilities. Its profound benefits were described one day in an essay by Ben Mattlin in the New York Times:

“Looking back, perhaps the most unexpected achievement of the ADA isn’t the wheelchair lifts on buses or the sign-language interpreters at political conventions. It’s that it gave people like me a sense of entitlement, of belonging, of pride.

The ADA [the Americans with Disabilities Act] is about more than ramps and Braille; it’s about dispelling stereotypes, ensuring parity and fairness, creating opportunities and opening up our society to the full spectrum of types and needs. It’s about accepting, even welcoming, a huge and often marginalized segment of the population.”

President Bush signed that historic legislation into law and caused it to be implemented across America.

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In October 1992 I joined Presidents Salinas and Bush in San Antonio, Texas, to sign the NAFTA -- the North American Free Trade Agreement – among our three nations.

When President Bush was elected, we began negotiations to include Mexico in our trade agreement, renaming it the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The foundational document remained the Canada –US FTA with essential changes to accommodate the specific nature of the Mexican economy and political climate at the time.

It was also unique for another reason: it marked the first time in history that a trade agreement would exist between two mature industrialized countries, the U.S. and Canada – both G7 nations – and a developing country, Mexico.

So what has happened since?

NAFTA now constitutes – with almost 500 million people – the largest, richest and most dynamic free trade area in the world – $1.2 trillion per year trade in goods and services – with a combined GDP of almost $22 trillion a year. With less than 7 per cent of the world’s population, NAFTA partners last year represented 28 per cent of the world’s total GDP. Tens of millions of new jobs have been created in the NAFTA countries since the signing of the Treaty in 1994 - most of them in the U.S. – with many millions of these jobs coming from trade and investment with your NAFTA partners, and vice versa.

With an unemployment rate of 3.9 per cent - the lowest of any industrialized country in the world – it is increasingly difficult to seriously argue that the U.S. has done poorly with its international trade agreements, that have created such vast employment opportunities at home and across North America.

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NAFTA did not just happen by accident. It is the result of the leadership and vision of President George Bush.

He knew that such instruments are much more than documents for accountants to appraise and determine which country gained a little in agriculture compared with another benefiting from automotive parts and another still from energy exports. He understood that such trade arrangements are a vital constituent part of an enlightened foreign policy, not isolated variables to be picked apart and analyzed on a profit and loss basis. Such agreements succeed only when all parties benefit. And who can deny that was the case here.

Such farsighted and generous U.S. leadership gave the world, for example, the Marshall Plan in which colossal U.S. investments were made to resurrect a Europe, defeated and destroyed after World War II. Who today would argue that this was an improvident course for the U.S. inasmuch as it has ensured the creation of a united Europe – democratic, prosperous and free from national hostilities – certainly for the first time in modern history, thereby contributing greatly to the national security and prosperity of the United States and its allies.

As Michael Gerson recently wrote:

“…we are the nation that liberated death camps, rebuilt our enemies, inspires dissidents, welcomes refugees, secures the peace on every contested frontier and seizes “the burden and glory of freedom.” This does not make us “globalists”; it makes us Americans.”

I have always believed that the United States of America is the greatest democratic republic that God has ever placed on the face of this earth. Canada is privileged to have the United States as a neighbour and friend and the U.S. should thank its lucky stars every day that it has Canada on its northern border.

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Winston Churchill defined the Canada-U.S. relationship in all its glory almost 80 years ago in the following golden words: “That long frontier from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, guarded only by neighbourly respect and honorable obligations, is an example to every country and a pattern for the future of the world.”

Such an extraordinarily impressive bilateral partnership – the most successful in world history - must be cherished and enhanced by our leadership in a manner that is thoughtful, understanding and wise.

Such attitudes should make it possible for today’s leaders to appreciate the indispensable value of honorable compromise and bring current negotiations to a successful conclusion.

There is no doubt in my mind that, on the objective evidence, history will record that NAFTA will rank with the best and most beneficial trade deals ever negotiated by the U.S. and its partners in their long and glorious lives as great trading nations.

There is a word for this: it is called leadership - and let me tell you that when George Bush was President of the United States of America, every single head of government in the world knew they were dealing with a genuine leader - one who was distinguished, resolute and brave.

It was once said that “leadership is the capacity to look around the corner of history, just a little bit.”

By that or any other standard, George Bush was quite a leader – in peace, war, the environment, social justice, trade and the enhancement of America’s role as the unquestioned international leader of the free world as it confronted such extraordinary challenges.

The impact of significant public policy decisions is often unclear in the early years. It sometimes takes a considerable period – frequently decades – before the full consequences of an important initiative become apparent.

As Reinhold Niebuhr reminded us: "nothing worth doing is completed in our life time; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing fine or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith".

It is in this perspective that great and controversial questions of public policy must be considered.

So, here we are, a quarter century later and the verdict on George Bush’s presidency is in: he was a success in all important matters he undertook and his achievements will live on in history as those of a brave and principled man who served as President of this great republic with decency, dignity, principle and style.

And it is why he is beloved by Americans today and admired by people around the world who remember this special nation during his presidency as a golden beacon of tolerance, friendship, accomplishment and respect.

No president of the United States of America could ask for more.

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