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Remembering 41

December 7, 2018

Like so many other young conservatives in the 1980s, I really came of age politically during the Reagan Revolution. I was deeply inspired by President Reagan’s commitment to democracy and freedom and his compassionate, yet principled approach to governing, a model I’ve tried to embody throughout my service to the people of South Dakota.

President Reagan was a tremendous public figure, but he had help along the way and often leaned on George H.W. Bush, his trusted vice president who served alongside him for all eight years of his presidency. Reagan trusted him for the same reasons the American people trusted him when they later elected him to serve as our 41st president: He was smart, kind, a true public servant, and dedicated to making America a better place than when he found it.

By the time George H.W. Bush (or just “41” as he’s known today) ascended to the presidency, he’d already spent a lifetime in public service. Barely an adult, he enlisted in the Navy and quickly became one of the youngest naval aviators ever to take to the sky. James Baker, Bush’s long-time friend, White House chief of staff, and secretary of state, described him poignantly as a “charter member of the Greatest Generation.”

War hero was only one chapter in Bush’s long and tenured career in public service. He would later serve as a member of Congress, ambassador to the United Nations, diplomat in China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and vice president of the United States – all jobs that most public servants would consider a pinnacle career achievement on their own, let alone collectively.

His resume for president was as good as it gets, a characterization he’d likely contend, as humble as he was in life. And while he’d been assigned many titles throughout his nine-plus decades on earth, I think it’s safe to say that above all others, he was proudest to be called husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather.

On his marriage to Barbara, the longest marriage of any presidential couple in our nation’s history, Bush once wrote, “I have climbed perhaps the highest mountain in the world, but even that cannot hold a candle to being Barbara’s husband.”

I was humbled and honored to attend President Bush’s funeral in Washington, D.C. As I listened to everyone who spoke at the memorial service, it was almost as if they were puzzle pieces perfectly selected to illustrate each corner of Bush’s life, giving all of us a full picture of what this man meant to the United States. They talked about his place in history and his role as a world leader and described him as a friend, family man, and son of God.   

In an almost poetic way, presidential historian Jon Meacham said of Bush that he was “America’s last great soldier-statesman, a 20th-century founding father.” Meacham was able to read his full eulogy to the president before his passing, and the president responded in a way and with a sense of humility that only he could: “That’s a lot about me, Jon.” As if to say his own eulogy should focus more on the people he served rather than the man who so selflessly served them – humble to the very end.

When President George W. Bush spoke at the funeral, it was an emotional message from a son to his father, not one president simply eulogizing another. The 43rd president said of the 41st, “He taught us what it means to be a wonderful father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. He was firm in his principles and supportive as we began to seek our own ways. He encouraged and comforted but never steered. We tested his patience. I know I did. But he always responded with the great gift of unconditional love.” Unconditional love. What a profound and timeless lesson on what truly matters in life.

Rest in peace, Mr. President.