Long before the students of Houston Christian High School were born, an event occurred that for years the world had not thought possible: the wall that divided the city of Berlin – and more importantly, divided families, friends, and colleagues – for 28 years, suddenly came down. Ripped to shreds, brick by brick, by an angry and out-of-patience population, the wall opened on November 9th, 1989. Suddenly, Berlin was one city again.
Sitting at the helm at what appeared to be an unexpected turn of events was the 41st President of the United States. Quietly, decisively – and now we know, very wisely – President Bush was masterfully managing the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
As the world celebrates the 30-year anniversary of the Fall of the Wall, much of the conversation has centered around President Bush’s extraordinary leadership during this time period. Interestingly, that wasn’t always the case.
The day the Berlin Wall fell, the President appeared almost uninterested in the breaking news out of Germany. When pressed by the national media in a now infamous informal press conference in the Oval Office, he barely responded to questions and appeared bored. “I’m not an emotional kind of guy,” he said.
Some members of Congress suggested he go to Berlin and literally “dance on the wall.” After all, it appeared we had won; the Soviets had lost.
Yet, President Bush didn’t flinch.
And now we know why.
Unbeknownst to the crowd pushing for him to gloat, President Bush knew that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was being pushed by his Soviet hardliners to send tanks into East Berlin and put an end to it all. Years later, as more and more papers from that incident became declassified, what became startling clear was how close the West and the East had come to a major confrontation over the Berlin Wall, which no doubt would have resulted in bloodshed and probably would have ended the march toward freedom in Eastern Europe. Some have even speculated it could have triggered another world war.
Later, President Bush talked openly about how he also did not want to embarrass Gorbachev, whom President Bush believed – and rightly so – was open to ending the Cold War. He didn’t want to “poke my finger in his eye,” were his exact words.
How impactful was President Bush’s leadership during this time period? No one said it better than former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, at President Bush’s funeral.
“An ominous situation that could have become extremely menacing to world security was instead deftly channelled by the leadership of President Bush into the 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 a thousand years.”
When I was asked to write this essay about President Bush’s leadership qualities, I wanted to begin by telling you this story. Actions are, after all, more powerful than words. And as President Bush showed then, sometimes inaction is the most courageous path of all.
His behavior during the Fall of the Wall was a textbook example of President Bush’s style of leadership. He was not a chest-thumper or even a great orator. Instead, he believed in diplomacy behind the scenes. He believed in partnerships. He believed in listening to everyone in the room.
Here are some other leadership tips I learned from watching and listening to President Bush during the 25 years I was his chief of staff.
Make friends with everyone. You never know when you might need them down the road. When President Bush was the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations during the early 1970s, he was famous for dropping into the offices of ambassadors from smaller countries who often were ignored. Years later, as President, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, he built a coalition of 29 countries to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait. Many of his former United Nations ambassador friends were now presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers. They quickly agreed to be a part of a coalition put together by this American president. They knew and trusted him.
Give the other guy credit. It was one of President Bush’s most resounding themes. He admitted that it came from his mother, who lectured her children not to “be braggadocios” – not a word often used today but maybe it should be! President Bush again was famous for crediting his team – people like Secretary of State James Baker, National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, or Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney – for successes abroad and his domestic team including Chief of Staff John Sununu for successes at home. Again, the result was that their loyalty to him was deep – and productive.
Be decisive. President Bush was by far the most decisive person I knew. He would do his homework, and he was willing to listen to different ideas and consider different paths to take. Once he had taken it all in, he made his decision. Period. Done. Now get to work. He got a lot done as president, and he accomplished a lot as a former president because he didn’t waste time waffling.
Walk in humility. President Bush did not believe he knew all the answers and was not too proud to ask for advice. If necessary, he was willing to defer to someone more knowledgeable and even admitted making a mistake now and then. Then he would try to fix it.
Last but not least – develop your character. If you don’t have a solid moral foundation on which to stand, if you do not have a set of ideals in which you believe, and if you do not believe in something higher than yourself, then you cannot be a leader. After all, who would want to follow?
Jean Becker served as the chief of staff to former President George H. W. Bush until his death in 2018, supervising his office in both Houston and Kennebunkport, Maine, and overseeing the opening of the George Bush Presidential Library Center in 1997. Previously, Jean served as deputy press secretary to first lady Barbara Bush from 1989 to 1992 and helped Mrs. Bush with the editing and research for her books “Barbara Bush, A Memoir” and “Reflections.” A former journalist, she is on the board of directors of the George and Barbara Bush Foundation, the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and Points of Light. She is on the advisory board of The George Bush School of Government and Public Service. Her book about all the advice Barbara Bush gave out in her lifetime, “Pearls of Wisdom,” will be published in March 2020. She is working on a second book about President Bush’s post presidency.