Georgia politicians and leaders from both sides of the party aisle praised the life and legacy of former President George H. W. Bush, who died at the age of 94.
Georgia Republicans celebrated him as a singular statesman who helped burnish the party’s appeal at a time of Democratic dominance, a national security expert who parlayed his political experience into decades of public service after the White House.
“America and the world will miss and mourn the life and service of George H.W. Bush,” said U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson. “President and Mrs. Bush were and always will be an unforgettable first family. I was honored to serve and work with them.”
And he was feted by former President Jimmy Carter as a leader shaped by “grace, civility and social conscience.” Ex-Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn called him “the best prepared president in modern history in foreign policy and national security matters.”
“I am confident that history will give President Bush high marks not only because of what he did,” said Nunn, “but because of what he did not do during this tense and dangerous time” that converged with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Virtually every high-profile politician in Georgia praised Bush’s life and legacy in a wave of press releases and social media statements shortly after his death, underscoring his sterling reputation.
Among them was Gov. Nathan Deal, who touted Bush as a “proud American whose character and generous spirit helped to change our nation indelibly.” He signed an executive order to fly flags on state property at half-staff for the next month.
‘He inspired me’
Bush, a former congressman and one-time head of the Republican National Committee, built a formidable network in Georgia in the 1980s as vice president when he launched his run for the White House.
He carried the state in 1988 by roughly 300,000 votes over Democrat Michael Dukakis and helped forge the careers of many Georgia Republicans who went on to play important leadership roles.
Eric Tanenblatt, a veteran Georgia Republican operative and longtime Bush ally, landed his first job out of college working on Bush’s presidential campaign in Georgia and later served in the administration in Washington.
“He inspired me. He was genteel, thoughtful, honest and he was fair,” said Tanenblatt. “He really had a strong belief in our country, and his entire life was dedicated to this nation. He was an incredible individual, and he demonstrated the importance of civility.”
Frustrations with Bush’s domestic policy and the upstart candidacy of Ross Perot, a billionaire who ran as an Independent, contributed to Bush’s narrow defeat in Georgia in 1992 to Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.
It was the closest margin of any state in that election: Clinton won Georgia’s 13 electoral votes by less than 15,000 ballots. It was also the first time a Democrat carried Georgia since 1980, when Carter was on the ballot.
Bush remained a celebrated figure among state Republicans even after his defeat, and his son, George W. Bush, easily carried Georgia in 2000 and 2004. The elder Bush painstakingly built close ties in Georgia in part by campaigning candidates candidates at a time when they received little national help.
That included boosting Isakson’s unsuccessful 1990 bid for governor and helping to foster the career of Paul Coverdell, who was tapped by Bush to head the Peace Corps before he won a U.S. Senate seat in 1992.
“Paul Coverdell is a great example of someone who got to know George H.W. Bush in the 1970s and a lot of the inspiration he got for building the Republican Party in Georgia came from the president. Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, a lot of the Republican success in Georgia came from Bush’s appeal. People like Fred Cooper and Joe Rogers – corporate leaders – got involved with the Georgia GOP because there were business leaders they could relate to in Washington.”
‘The virtue of humility’
After his defeat, Bush committed himself to a different form of public service through Points of Light, a nonprofit initiative that later merged with the HandsOn Network, which was run by Michelle Nunn, the daughter of the former senator.
Nunn, now president of CARE USA, remembers feeling intimidated when she flew to Houston in 2006 to meet Bush at a tony club – and then being immediately put at ease by his humble nature.
“We laughed that he had a mother and I had a grandmother who both instilled the virtue of humility in us,” said Nunn, who later waged a campaign for U.S. Senate.
“He told the story of how he once bragged that he scored three goals in a soccer game, and his mother said, ‘That’s nice, how did the team do?’ I knew I could be my natural self in that interview.”
The organizations merged a year later and Nunn got to know Bush better as she led the united group for seven years. What she learned about the former president, she said, was that the “fundamental legacy of his life is one of public service.”
“He embodied that virtue in a way that’s particularly important at this time,” said Nunn. “He lived a life of personal kindness and generosity, and that spirit was both the driving force of his career – and it embodied the way he lived his daily life.”