As Bush showed, leaders can be strong and unifying at the same time

By May 15, 2023 May 19th, 2023 No Comments

My latest editorial in the Dallas Morning News. Click here to view on the DMN website, or continue reading for the full piece below.

As Bush showed, leaders can be strong and unifying at the same time

As 2024 looms, let’s reward politicians who follow his lead

In early April, I spent a few days as a Cameron Fellow at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service. It was inspiring to meet graduate students who are pursuing futures in public service with some thoughtful ideas about leadership and governance. They are heeding the call of the school’s namesake, President George H.W. Bush, who said, “There could be no definition of a successful life that does not include service to others. Find something to do.”

Before my visit, I read over some of Bush’s most famous remarks and writings. Even as someone whose family has known the Bushes for decades and has long admired the 41st president, I was struck by the graciousness of the tone he set for the country — a warmth that he was unafraid to show, because his strength as a leader spoke for itself. He knew that grace was not a sign of weakness.

Times have surely changed; it is dubious to compare a previous era to present times without appropriate context. Still, with another presidential election looming, it is worth remembering the appeals to goodness and decency that helped elevate Bush to the nation’s highest office and provided the roadmap for his consequential presidency.

Standing on what he called the “front porch of democracy” to give his inaugural address on January 20, 1989, Bush said, “I take as my guide the hope of a saint: In crucial things, unity; in important things, diversity; in all things, generosity.”

In a present era when partisanship has risen and tribalism has spread, there is great impact in those three basic ideas: unity, diversity, and generosity.

Too often, the way to get ahead in politics is by appealing to someone’s worst instincts rather than their better angels. We have been conditioned to think that the path to power is through dividing and conquering. In contrast, Bush built bipartisan coalitions around lasting achievements, from the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act to Operation Desert Storm.

When it comes to the issues that really matter, you need people with different experiences and perspectives working together. No party has a monopoly on good ideas — or bad ones.

As we start to hear more and more about the candidates preparing to seek the White House in 2024, it is my hope that all of us will try to do a little better in terms of what we expect and what we reward from our candidates. I hope we can leave behind the vitriol of the 2020 campaign — and, especially, its aftermath.

Famed Democratic strategist David Axelrod has talked about the advice he gave to then-Sen. Barack Obama when he was weighing whether to jump into the 2008 presidential race to take on then-Sen. Hillary Clinton. Axelrod has said he told Obama that voters almost always prefer the remedy rather than the replica of what they already have.

I can think of no better remedy to our national political climate than the words Bush spoke and the approach he embodied. It could be that, in 2024, voters respond to candidates who tap into our common goodness rather than our differences.

Every day, people go to extraordinary lengths to extend a hand of help or compassion, whether in their vocation or their spare time. Why should our politics be so different?

Recent polling revealed that 1-in-5 Americans believe that we should split into two separate countries: one consisting of the blue states and one consisting of the red states. Not only is this a ridiculous idea, but history shows us that this level of division hurts our country.

I understand — and certainly Bush understood — that there are going to be differences, and that politics is a contact sport. Every campaign has a winner and a loser.

But we can be competitive without being caustic. The remedy to our politics is a leader who knows how to tap into our decency, someone who can lead with both a unifying vision and real solutions to our most vexing challenges. Leading with ideas is both more effective and more difficult than leading with name-calling and meanness.

The principles that Bush promoted in his inaugural address and in so much of his life in and out of office are bigger than any one political party or ideology. Decency and goodness transcend any construct of conservative vs. liberal or red vs. blue.

The students I met at the Bush School seemed eager to embrace this approach. Let’s all join them in their optimism for, and commitment to, an inclusive and uplifting conversation about our future.

Joe Straus of San Antonio served as speaker of the Texas House from 2009 to 2019. He is chairman of the Texas Forever Forward Political Action Committee. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.


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