Former prime minister Brian Mulroney delivered a eulogy at the funeral of former U.S. president George H.W. Bush on Dec. 5 in Washington. These are his full remarks.
You remember where you were the summer you left your teenager years behind and turned 20. Well, I was working as a labourer in my hometown in northern Quebec, trying to make enough money to get back into law school. It was a tough job, but I was safe and secure and had the added benefit of my mother’s home cooking every night.
On Sept. 2, 1944, as we have just heard so eloquently from John, 20-year-old Lieutenant George Bush was preparing to attack Japanese war installations in the Pacific. He was part of a courageous generation of young Americans who led the charge against overwhelming odds in the historic and bloody battle for supremacy in the Pacific against the colossal military might of Imperial Japan. That’s what George Bush did the summer he turned 20.
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 the context of all who have served as president, I believe it will be said that in the life of this country, the United States, which is in my judgment the greatest democratic republic that God has ever placed on the face of this Earth, I believe it will be said that no occupant of the Oval Office was more courageous, more principled and more honourable than George Herbert Walker Bush.
George Bush was a man of high accomplishment, but he also had a delightful sense of humour, and was a lot of fun. At his first NATO meeting in Brussels, as the new American president—he sat opposite me actually, that day—George was taking copious notes as the heads of government spoke. We were all limited in time. But you know, it’s very flattering to have the president of the United States take notes as you speak. Even someone as modest as me threw in a few more adjectives here and there, to extend the pleasure of the experience.
After President Mitterrand, Prime Minister Thatcher, and Chancellor Kohl had spoken, it was the turn of the prime minister of Iceland who, as President Bush continued to write, went on and on and on and on—ending only when the secretary-general of NATO firmly decreed a coffee break. George put down his pen, walked over to me and said, “Brian, I’ve just learned the fundamental principle of international affairs.” I said, “What’s that, George?” He said, “The smaller the country, the longer the speech.”
In the second year of the Bush presidency, responding to implacable pressures from the Reagan and Bush administrations, the Soviet Union imploded. This was, in my judgment, the most epochal event, political event, of the 20th century. An ominous situation that could’ve become extremely menacing to world security was instead deftly challenged by the leadership of President Bush in 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 over a thousand years.
And then, as the Berlin Wall collapsed soon thereafter and calls for freedom cascaded across central and eastern Europe, leaving dictators and dogma in the trash can of history, no challenge—no challenge—assumed greater importance for western solidarity than the unification of Germany within an unswerving NATO. But old fears in western Europe and unrelenting hostility by the military establishment in the Soviet Union—and the Warsaw Pact—rendered this initiative among the most complex and sensitive ever undertaken. One serious misstep and this entire process could have been compromised, perhaps irretrievably. There’s obviously no more knowledgeable or competent judge of what really happened at this most vital juncture of the 20th century than Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany. In a speech to a parliamentary commission of the Bundestag, Chancellor Kohl said categorically that this historic initiative of German reunification could never ever have succeeded without the brilliant leadership of President Bush.
Much has been written about the first Gulf War. Simply put, the coalition of 29 disparate nations 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 was President Bush’s initiative from beginning to end.
President Bush was also responsible for the North American Free Trade Agreement, recently modernized and improved by new administrations, which created the largest and richest free-trade area in the history of the world; while also signing into law the Americans with Disabilities Act, which transformed the lives of millions and millions of Americans forever.
President Bush’s decision to go forward with strong environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Act that resulted in the acid rain accord with Canada, is a splendid gift to future generations of Americans and Canadians, to savour in the air they breathe and the water they drink; in the forests they enjoy and the lakes, rivers and streams they cherish.
There’s a word for this: it’s called leadership. 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 that they were dealing with a gentleman. A genuine leader. One who was distinguished, resolute and brave.
I don’t keep a diary, but occasionally I write private notes after important personal or professional events. One occurred at Walkers Point at Kennebunkport, Maine, on September 2nd, 2001. Mila and I had been spending our traditional Labour Day weekend with George and Barbara, and towards the end, he and I had a long, private conversation. My notes, capture the moment.
I told George how I thought his mood had shifted over the last eight years. From a series of frustrations and moments of despondency in 1993, to the high enthusiasm that I felt at the Houston launch of the Presidential Library, to George W.’s election as governor in November of that year, to the delight following Jeb’s election in 1998, followed by their great pride and pleasure with George W.’s election to presidency. And perhaps most importantly, to the serenity we found today in both Barbara and George. They are truly at peace with themselves, joyous in what they and the children have achieved, gratified by the goodness that God has bestowed upon them all, and genuinely content with the thrill and promise of each passing day.
And at that, George, who had tears in his eyes as I spoke, said, “You know Brian, you’ve got us pegged just right, and the roller coaster of emotions we’ve experience since 1992. Come with me.”
He led me down the porch at Walkers Point to the side of the house that fronts the ocean, and pointed to a small, simple plaque that had been unobtrusively installed just some days earlier. It read: “C.A.V.U.”
George said, “Brian, this stands for ‘ceiling and visibility unlimited.’ When I was a terrified 18-to-19-year-old pilot in the Pacific, those were the words we hoped to hear before takeoff. It meant perfect flying, and that’s the way I feel about our life today—C.A.V.U. Everything is perfect. Barbara and I could not have asked for better lives. We are truly happy, and truly at peace.”
As I looked over the waters at Walkers Point on that cold September afternoon in Maine, I was reminded of the line, simple and true, that speaks to the real nature of George Bush and his love of his wonderful family and precious surroundings: There are wooden ships, there are sailing ships, there are ships that sail the sea/ But the best ships are friendships, and may they always be.