WASHINGTON — Two decades ago, George H.W. Bush came to Hofstra University to defend his legacy at a three-day conference where hundreds of scholars and officials debated and rendered an early assessment of his one term as president.
The participants argued as they rehashed Bush and his presidency. Did he have a far-reaching vision? Could he effectively communicate with the public? Had he been too timid in managing the end of the Cold War? Had he ably prosecuted the Gulf War?
“I hope that history will look kindly on our efforts to meet the challenges of that rapidly changing world, when the barriers dividing us were ultimately breached, not by the forces of war, but by the forces of ideas,” Bush said as he addressed the April 1997 conference for a first -draft historical assessment.
Yet, then — and now — one word often emerged to describe Bush, the last patrician president who had been raised in privilege, fought in World War II, and left private industry to dedicate most of his life to public service: Classy.
“I’ve never met anybody who was more graceful and dignified than George H.W. Bush,” said Hofstra political science Prof. Richard Himmelfarb, who helped run the conference and had a chance to talk to Bush. “The word I would use: He had class.”
Meena Bose, director of Hofstra’s Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency, had just arrived at the Hempstead university that year, and she recalled that Bush and his wife, Barbara, made themselves amazingly available to dignitaries and students alike.
Bose and Himmelfarb recalled how the Bushes stood for 90 minutes so that about 200 people at a special dinner with them could have their photographs taken with them. Later Bush met with students, they said, and answered any and all questions, no matter how challenging.
Unlike most of the presidents subject to the other 11 presidential conferences, Himmelfarb said, Bush urged all of his top officials to participate, and they did, including his vice president, Dan Quayle; defense secretary, Dick Cheney; and his chief of staff and later secretary of state, James Baker.
As a testament to Bush’s ability to make friends of foreign leaders, former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev appeared and praised Bush, saying, “President Bush and I were able to put world politics on a new track to a new century."
“The conference on Bush probably was the highlight of our presidential conferences,” Bose said.
It was the 10th conference, with a 74-page program and 34 panels on everything from his campaigns to his breaking of his memorable pledge — “Read my Lips: no new taxes” — to his invasion of Panama and appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. It produced four volumes of academic papers.
In 2010, Bush and son George W. Bush came again to the Island to address 1,000 people at the Long Island Association, sitting in easy chairs and chatting comfortably as they looked back and defended their presidencies.
Overall, the conference warmly received Bush, said scholar Mark Rozell, who later co-authored the book, “Power and Prudence: The Presidency of George H.W. Bush,” and now the dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia.
At the conference, Rozell said, “The judgment then was somewhat closer to the conventional wisdom of Bush’s time: That he was not a visionary leader, that his presidency was more like a Reagan third term, where he was consolidating the achievements of his predecessor, but that he was not charting a new course.”
And now after the four presidents who have followed him, Rozell said, a new appreciation for how Bush handled the office of the presidency has emerged.
“His steady low-key incrementalist style looks a lot stronger today than it did two decades ago,” Rozell said.
“Many Americans pine for the kind of steady, stable leadership hand that Bush displayed. It wasn’t appreciated in its time, it lacked flash,” he said. “But I think people have seen enough of the theatrics in politics at the highest level to I think appreciate much more what’s been lost.”