Good Men Are Hard to Find: Lessons from the Life of George H.W. Bush

February 19, 2016

I just finished reading Jon Meacham’s magnificent biography of the 41st President of the United States, George HW Bush, a book I thoroughly enjoyed, from cover to cover.

Bush’s election to the presidency in 1988 was the first presidential election I paid attention to. I was ten years old, already a budding politics and history nerd. We huddled around the radio in our family room that November night (our family did not own a TV) and waited to hear the returns.

George HW Bush was in the arena during much of the pivotal history of the 20th century. His father, Prescott Bush, was a U.S. Senator. He volunteered to fight in World War II and became a fighter pilot whose plane was shot down over Chichi Jima. He and three others survived, but not after he finished his bombing mission, parachuted into the waters of the Pacific, and was rescued by a Navy submarine. When he returned home, Bush married Barbara, built an oil business in Texas, then got involved in politics. He won a seat in Congress, then ran for the Senate and lost. He served in a variety of roles in government: Ambassador to the United Nations, Ambassador to China, and Director of the CIA. He was the Chairman of the Republican National Committee. He was considered for the Vice-Presidency twice: in 1968 with Richard Nixon and in 1974 with Gerald Ford. He ran for President in 1980, lost to Ronald Reagan, and then was asked by Reagan to join the ticket. He served as Vice-President for 8 years before seeking the presidency and winning in 1988. Born just after World War I, Bush lived through the Great Depression, World War II, Korea, Vietnam Korea, the turbulent 60’s, Watergate, the assassinations of JFK, RFK, MLK, the fall of Communism, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, 9/11, the digital age, and much more. He saw two of his sons become governor and one become President. His life is a fascinating prism through which we can study the 20th century.

Reading this book was a pleasure on many levels. I enjoy, thoroughly, biographies, especially political ones. But more than this, I came away with several reflections on leadership and life. I thought I’d share a few with you.

1) You don’t have to be a monster to be a consequential leader. There is a narrative, fueled by the stories of men like Steve Jobs, that to be effective, one must be a tyrant: thoughtless, selfish, ruthless. Even among Christian leaders, this idea exists and is rewarded. George H.W. Bush demonstrates that you can lead at the highest levels of society and still be a kind and decent man. For Bush, his decency was something he was taught by his mother, but nurtured throughout his life by discipline. He refused to hold grudges, to settle scores, or to not be kind. He was prudent and deferential, often subsuming his own ambition for the good of those he served and for the good of the nation.

As I read this book, it reminded me of the fruit of the Spirit described in Galatians: gentleness. It’s a similar trait described in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3. Gentleness, is not weakness. It’s not avoiding conflict or about being nice. It’s a steady disposition and a genuine concern for those who are affected by your decisions. It’s modesty, a kind of selflessness. Today common decency is neither taught nor rewarded. This is why men who are both powerful and gentle are hard to find. But for Bush, a man who led well, it was in abundant supply.

2) Sometimes your best and most lasting work will go unnoticed.  When the history of the end of the Cold War is retold, giants like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa, Pope John Paul II, Vaclav Havel and others are often (rightly) given credit for its demise. What goes unnoticed, however, is the vital role Bush played. It was during Bush’s presidency that the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was reunified and during his presidency when many former Soviet Republics gained their freedom. The end of the Cold War could have had a bloody end, but for Bush’s careful diplomacy and steady leadership.

Bush also assembled a coalition to push Saddam Hussein out of Iraq and presided over a hugely successful mission. His refusal to take out Saddam at the time seemed weak, but, in history’s hindsight, seems prudent given the struggles the U.S. has had in restoring stability in a post-Saddam Iraq.

There were many other similar crises over which Bush presided, both at home and abroad, that went unnoticed, but were evidence of careful leadership. And yet, until recently, most have not considered Bush a consequential president. He’s often lost when people discuss the 20th century’s greatest leaders. This reminds me that much of good leadership is done behind closed doors, when nobody is paying attention, on matters that often seem unimportant to the outside world. If our sense of service is fueled only by getting credit for what we do, by being noticed, we’ll not lead well. But if we are committed to faithfulness, wherever we lead, our leadership will have more lasting impact.

3) You can lead well and still love your family. To study the Bush family is to study a family deeply devoted to each other. George Bush often wrote touching notes to his children during times of crisis. He was, for them, a source of encouragement and strength. His kids adore their father. To hear Bush talk of his love for Barbara (He calls her “Bar”) is to hear a husband who deeply loves his wife, over the many seasons of life. George HW Bush was an ambitious, accomplished man and yet he didn’t sacrifice his kids.

As a husband and father, reading this book was, at times, sobering and convicting. It forced me to think through my faithfulness to my family and to ask hard questions of myself. Sadly, many good leaders are a mess at home. It doesn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t be this way.

4) There is no substitute for experience in leadership. It struck me, as I read this book, that George HW. Bush may be the last President elected with a long record of public service. He may have, arguably, been the most experienced person to hold that office. This served him well, especially on foreign policy as he leveraged relationships with government leaders he had forged over decades.

Today such a resume is considered a liability, not just for Presidents but for leadership positions at all levels, including in the church. We are a culture obsessed with youth, with charisma, with raw talent. There is something to be said, of course, for young leadership. Maturity is not always tied to age. Sometimes young leaders have a prudence and vision beyond their years. Paul told Timothy to not let the church he served “despise his youth” (1 Timothy 4:12).

However, we should wise not to make youth and attractiveness the singular desirable quality in those we seek to lead us. In those moments of crisis, when leadership is difficult, those who’ve led before often have a reservoir of life experience to guide them.

5) Men plot and plan, but God is gathering history to himself. I have this thought after every Presidential biography I read. Reading history only reinforces to me the sovereignty of Christ over history. Bush’s life is no exception. But for a few inches left or right, he could have been killed while being shot down at sea in World War II. Had Richard Nixon made Bush a White House staffer instead of ambassador to the U.N, Bush’s career may have ended with Watergate. But for a few choices and mistakes and turns, he might have defeated Ronald Reagan and won the presidency in 1980. Had former President Gerald Ford accepted the offer to be Reagan’s running mate in 1980, Bush, the second choice, may not have ever been elected president 8 years later. Had a few historical events gone differently or not happened at all, we may have never known who George HW. Bush is.

The sovereignty of God, over history, shouldn’t drive us to either fatalism or passivity. We should live out our God-given callings with intentionality and purpose, but knowing that in the swirl of history, both in the world and in our own personal lives, there are no accidents and no coincidences. Nothing happens that doesn’t pass through the hands of a wise and perfect God.

Update: I can’t believe I forgot to mention that I’ve been to the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas on the campus of Texas A&M. I highly recommend the visit.

Daniel Darling

Daniel Darling is the Director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a columnist for World Magazine and a contributor to USA Today. Dan is a bestselling author of several books including, The Dignity Revolution, A Way With Words, and The Characters of … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24