By Robert Goodwin
Eagle Guest Contributor
I came to know and later work for and with President George H.W. Bush in 1987 when a dear friend and pioneer Black Republican encouraged me to get involved in his campaign. I was not particularly taken by Michael Dukakis and what little I really knew about Vice President Bush was at least couched in his reputation then, as now, for being a decent and principled man. I joined the National Steering Committee of Democrats for Bush.
When he won, I was encouraged by my patron to seek an Appointment in his administration. I was fortunate to be appointed as the Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, established under President Carter but was sustained in each administration since. It is charged with tracking the flow of federal dollars to the nation’s HBCUs and working with those agencies to try and increase that support via various strategies. It was here that I began to have periodic contact with the President.
His Board of Advisors included icons from the HBCU and Civil Rights community such as Dr. James Cheek, of Howard University (who chaired the Board), Dr. Bill Harvey of Hampton, Dr. Ben Peyton of Tuskegee, Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women, and James Joseph of the Council of Foundations (who would later serve as Ambassador to South Africa in the Clinton Administration) and more.
The most notable event that I was a part of in my short two-year tenure there and something which illustrated how President Bush availed himself to the counsel of others, even those who might have opposed other policies of his administration, was when in 1990, Ayers vs. Mississippi, was being argued before the Supreme Court.
The Board of Advisors told him that the US Government was on the wrong side of the issue and upon studying our petition, called his White House Counsel and instructed him to change the Government’s position before the Court and to side with the three Mississippi based HBCU plaintiffs. A rarity if it has ever happened before, or since.
Not long afterwards, I had the chance to apply for the position of Chief Operating Officer of the newly charted Points of Light Foundation. A non-partisan not for profit organization whose mission was to promote a culture of volunteering and work across the major sectors of society–media, corporations, government and the civic sector–to develop infrastructure and strategies for increasing the effectiveness and impact of that service.
President Bush was the Honorary Chairman of the Board. It was here that I got to work with him on a fairly regular basis, particularly after becoming the CEO two years later, and to have an opportunity to appreciate his personal qualities and effectiveness that inspire and renew me to this day, as they do, I think, the millions of Americans who witnessed his steadiness, humility, compassion and integrity. It is true, what you have seen on the world stage is what you saw at the dinner or conference table; a thoughtful, honorable man who believed that “to whom much is given, much is required”, and that “service is the price we pay for our room and board on earth”.
The Points of Light Foundation (now simply known as Points of Light) became the largest organization in the world, dedicated to volunteering, during my tenure, in large part, because he was able to attract men and women from the corporate, philanthropic and non-profit sectors as board members, donors and supporters to promote the value and practice of civic engagement. He stood on the shoulders of John Kennedy by elevating the notion of Service as a national priority.
The many tributes since his passing have all underscored the fact that if you came into George Bush’s orbit, whether as a flea or a whale, he would overwhelm you with his humility, encouragement, sense of humor, and the spirit of the nobility of purpose which he exuded.
One such occasion, among many, was when we were having lunch in his Houston office, I noted that George W. and my mother shared the same birthday, which was fast approaching. Without a thought, he picked up the phone and called her, a day early I believe, to commemorate her 101st birthday and to let her know he understood her pride in her son as he had in his own.
I will forever cherish, not just the pictures and personal notes from him from over the years, but his example of respect, genuine interest in the welfare of others, honor and integrity. I, like so many countless others who he came in contact with, can attest that these were not hollow concepts to be trotted out merely for public consumption, or the applause of the crowd. They were woven into the fabric of his being. He was always approachable and responsive. He was always inspirational, not necessarily in his oratory, though he had moments of flourish, but in his example and his generous spirit.
His home-going comes at a time of grave national distress. While we must wrestle with domestic and foreign challenges that continue to test the efficacy of our democracy, he knew that government has its limits; that what distinguishes us among all nations is not our tax policies or military strength or capitalistic prowess.
He also knew that the greatest threats to our leadership in the world are not all defended with walls or defeated by missiles. That while we combat harsh realities we cannot do so at the expense of the erosion of the values which equate to our national “soul.”
So as we say goodbye and wait as historians assess his stature among the pantheon of US Presidents and the accomplishments forged under his leadership, may he be the ballast, the lynchpin in our national consciousness of what it means to be truly great. May we always hold true to the ideal that while we navigate through the many treacherous waters that are a necessary part of our role and responsibility on the global stage, that we move the country forward while always doing so by appealing to our higher angels.
Perhaps there is no greater truth about both human nature and the challenges of maintaining an inclusive, just society than that disclosed in the story of an old Cherokee teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it between two wolves. One is evil—he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
He continued, “The other is good–he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you—and inside every other person too.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Such a fight is underway in our national conversation and psyche as well. Thank you President Bush for who you were as a man and as a leader. Thank you for encouraging us to also be mindful of who we are feeding. Our nation will be better because you lived and served.