Good Men Are Hard to Find: Lessons from the Life of George H.W. Bush

51hVA+1MDRLI just finished reading Jon Meacham’s magnificent biography of the 41st President of the United States, George HW Bush, a book I thoroughly enjoyed, from cover to cover.

Bush’s election to the presidency in 1988 was the first presidential election I paid attention to. I was ten years old, already a budding politics and history nerd. We huddled around the radio in our family room that November night (our family did not own a TV) and waited to hear the returns.

George HW Bush was in the arena during much of the pivotal history of the 20th century. His father, Prescott Bush, was a U.S. Senator. He volunteered to fight in World War II and became a fighter pilot whose plane was shot down over Chichi Jima. He and three others survived, but not after he finished his bombing mission, parachuted into the waters of the Pacific, and was rescued by a Navy submarine. When he returned home, Bush married Barbara, built an oil business in Texas, then got involved in politics. He won a seat in Congress, then ran for the Senate and lost. He served in a variety of roles in government: Ambassador to the United Nations, Ambassador to China, and Director of the CIA. He was the Chairman of the Republican National Committee. He was considered for the Vice-Presidency twice: in 1968 with Richard Nixon and in 1974 with Gerald Ford. He ran for President in 1980, lost to Ronald Reagan, and then was asked by Reagan to join the ticket. He served as Vice-President for 8 years before seeking the presidency and winning in 1988. Born just after World War I, Bush lived through the Great Depression, World War II, Korea, Vietnam Korea, the turbulent 60’s, Watergate, the assassinations of JFK, RFK, MLK, the fall of Communism, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, 9/11, the digital age, and much more. He saw two of his sons become governor and one become President. His life is a fascinating prism through which we can study the 20th century.

Reading this book was a pleasure on many levels. I enjoy, thoroughly, biographies, especially political ones. But more than this, I came away with several reflections on leadership and life. I thought I’d share a few with you.

1) You don’t have to be a monster to be a consequential leader. There is a narrative, fueled by the stories of men like Steve Jobs, that to be effective, one must be a tyrant: thoughtless, selfish, ruthless. Even among Christian leaders, this idea exists and is rewarded. George H.W. Bush demonstrates that you can lead at the highest levels of society and still be a kind and decent man. For Bush, his decency was something he was taught by his mother, but nurtured throughout his life by discipline. He refused to hold grudges, to settle scores, or to not be kind. He was prudent and deferential, often subsuming his own ambition for the good of those he served and for the good of the nation.

As I read this book, it reminded me of the fruit of the Spirit described in Galatians: gentleness. It’s a similar trait described in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3. Gentleness, is not weakness. It’s not avoiding conflict or about being nice. It’s a steady disposition and a genuine concern for those who are affected by your decisions. It’s modesty, a kind of selflessness. Today common decency is neither taught nor rewarded. This is why men who are both powerful and gentle are hard to find. But for Bush, a man who led well, it was in abundant supply.

2) Sometimes your best and most lasting work will go unnoticed.  When the history of the end of the Cold War is retold, giants like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa, Pope John Paul II, Vaclav Havel and others are often (rightly) given credit for its demise. What goes unnoticed, however, is the vital role Bush played. It was during Bush’s presidency that the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was reunified and during his presidency when many former Soviet Republics gained their freedom. The end of the Cold War could have had a bloody end, but for Bush’s careful diplomacy and steady leadership.

Bush also assembled a coalition to push Saddam Hussein out of Iraq and presided over a hugely successful mission. His refusal to take out Saddam at the time seemed weak, but, in history’s hindsight, seems prudent given the struggles the U.S. has had in restoring stability in a post-Saddam Iraq.

There were many other similar crises over which Bush presided, both at home and abroad, that went unnoticed, but were evidence of careful leadership. And yet, until recently, most have not considered Bush a consequential president. He’s often lost when people discuss the 20th century’s greatest leaders. This reminds me that much of good leadership is done behind closed doors, when nobody is paying attention, on matters that often seem unimportant to the outside world. If our sense of service is fueled only by getting credit for what we do, by being noticed, we’ll not lead well. But if we are committed to faithfulness, wherever we lead, our leadership will have more lasting impact.

3) You can lead well and still love your family. To study the Bush family is to study a family deeply devoted to each other. George Bush often wrote touching notes to his children during times of crisis. He was, for them, a source of encouragement and strength. His kids adore their father. To hear Bush talk of his love for Barbara (He calls her “Bar”) is to hear a husband who deeply loves his wife, over the many seasons of life. George HW Bush was an ambitious, accomplished man and yet he didn’t sacrifice his kids.

As a husband and father, reading this book was, at times, sobering and convicting. It forced me to think through my faithfulness to my family and to ask hard questions of myself. Sadly, many good leaders are a mess at home. It doesn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t be this way.

4) There is no substitute for experience in leadership. It struck me, as I read this book, that George HW. Bush may be the last President elected with a long record of public service. He may have, arguably, been the most experienced person to hold that office. This served him well, especially on foreign policy as he leveraged relationships with government leaders he had forged over decades.

Today such a resume is considered a liability, not just for Presidents but for leadership positions at all levels, including in the church. We are a culture obsessed with youth, with charisma, with raw talent. There is something to be said, of course, for young leadership. Maturity is not always tied to age. Sometimes young leaders have a prudence and vision beyond their years. Paul told Timothy to not let the church he served “despise his youth” (1 Timothy 4:12).

However, we should wise not to make youth and attractiveness the singular desirable quality in those we seek to lead us. In those moments of crisis, when leadership is difficult, those who’ve led before often have a reservoir of life experience to guide them.

5) Men plot and plan, but God is gathering history to himself. I have this thought after every Presidential biography I read. Reading history only reinforces to me the sovereignty of Christ over history. Bush’s life is no exception. But for a few inches left or right, he could have been killed while being shot down at sea in World War II. Had Richard Nixon made Bush a White House staffer instead of ambassador to the U.N, Bush’s career may have ended with Watergate. But for a few choices and mistakes and turns, he might have defeated Ronald Reagan and won the presidency in 1980. Had former President Gerald Ford accepted the offer to be Reagan’s running mate in 1980, Bush, the second choice, may not have ever been elected president 8 years later. Had a few historical events gone differently or not happened at all, we may have never known who George HW. Bush is.

The sovereignty of God, over history, shouldn’t drive us to either fatalism or passivity. We should live out our God-given callings with intentionality and purpose, but knowing that in the swirl of history, both in the world and in our own personal lives, there are no accidents and no coincidences. Nothing happens that doesn’t pass through the hands of a wise and perfect God.

Update: I can’t believe I forgot to mention that I’ve been to the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas on the campus of Texas A&M. I highly recommend the visit.

The Way Home: Episode 55 featuring Erin Straza

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Today I’m joined on the podcast by gifted writer, Erin Straza. My colleague Lindsay Swartz joins me for this interview as we discuss The Story, a beautiful short film that tells the gospel story in a fresh and compelling way. We walk about the power of story, evangelism, and how Christians should talk about Christ in an increasingly pluralistic society.

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Show Notes

Also: check out the latest edition of Light Magazine.

The Way Home: Episode 54 featuring Sean McDowell

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How can parents, pastors and influencers help students think critically and think well? This is the task of my good friend, Sean McDowell. Sean  is a gifted communicator with a passion for equipping the church, and in particular young people, to make the case for the Christian faith. He is an Assistant Professor in the Christian Apologetics program at Biola University. He’s also the son of famed apologist, Josh McDowell.

On this podcast we discuss a great new resource for students, passing down the faith, and Sean’s relationship with his famous dad.

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Show Notes:

Also: check out the latest edition of Light Magazine.

How to be a prolific writer

One of the questions I often get from emerging writers is this one: How do you create a lot of good content at a regular pace. Over the years, I’ve been blessed with opportunities to write for a variety of outlets on topics I enjoy. I write regularly for ERLC and am a regular contributor to several other publications.

Every writer has their own rhythms, but perhaps there are some things you can learn from what has helped me. Here are six things I do in my life to be a productive and consistent writer:

1) I don’t wait for inspiration, for a cabin next to a mountain stream, or a light bulb. I just write. I’m amazed at how many people I know talk about writing, love to discuss blogging, have good thoughts on writing a book. It’s a much smaller group of people who actually sit in a chair and write. Don’t let the lack of an idyllic setting or the fear of making a mistake or not being good enough keep you from writing. You have to start somewhere. My advice is to start collecting ideas and start putting those ideas on paper. Your first few attempts will be rough, may not even be ready for publication. They’ll need the polishing pen of an advanced editor. But if you never start writing, you will never publish. When I go back and read some of my first articles, devotionals, book chapters–I now cringe and hope nobody ever reads them. But had I not written those, I would not be writing better stuff down the line. Instead of thinking of your next blog or article as your magnum opus, look at it as the first contribution to a long body of work. When this piece is as good as you can possibly get it, publish it and then start working on another and another and another. Edit and rewrite, but don’t languish over every blog post, every article as if its an instant classic. It probably isn’t. That’s ok.

2) I write from my passions on topics that interest me. I write best when I’m writing in my wheelhouse. The things I love to write about are: pastoral leadership, cultural issues, and parenting/family. My passions and interests are the local church, human dignity, sports, and politics. I’ve also found that my best writing happens when my emotions are stirred. Here are some examples: reading something in a book that enlightens or inspires; listening to a sermon or talk that moves my heart; a comment or article or news story that angers me.

Early on in your career you may not have opportunity, all the time, to write in the center of your talents and passions. You may need to write on topics that are not as interesting to you, only to hone your writing muscles and prove yourself to editors and readers. Along the way, you will discover what it is that moves you and you should work hard to find opportunity to write from that well. Even when the opportunities are not as available, you can write on your own blog on topics you enjoy.

For many years I worked as a copywriter for an organization, writing fundraising letters, devotionals, back-cover copy, sermons. I didn’t have much opportunity to write in my own voice (and frankly, my voice wasn’t very compelling because I was young and immature). This season helped me learn how to write fast and on deadline. Eventually I earned the trust of editors who began to help me improve my craft. Now I’m in a place where I get to write on things I enjoy, things that stir my passions. This is where you eventually want to be.

3) Always be cultivating and chronicling ideas. I don’t journal. I used to beat myself up about it, but then I just accepted the fact that journaling isn’t for me. But what I do is record ideas as they come. My ideas come in bunches and they come all the time. I always try to have some way to record them. Sometimes I send an email to myself. Other times I’m writing on the back of a church bulletin. Often I have a notebook of some sort.

Don’t let good ideas pass. Act on them. What I typically do is take an idea, write it down, let it simmer for a day or two, then put it on paper as an article or blog. In this “simmering period” I not only chew on the idea, I try to picture the structure of a potential article. How will I start it? What will the major points be? How will I conclude? Sometimes I find that the idea is just an idea and doesn’t work as a piece of writing. Sometimes I find that an idea is half-baked and needs something more. But most of the time, I’ve been able to turn my ideas into articles.

4) I try to be curious and always learning. The way to cultivate good ideas is to live an interesting life. Fill your well by walking with Jesus every day, reading good books, meeting interesting people, and being faithful in church, family, and work. You’ll be surprised at how good ideas come. A few months ago I was in a church business meeting, of all things, and an idea about pastoral leadership and trust popped into my head. This became an article for a leading leadership blog. Some of my best ideas have come while I’m in church, driving in the car, listening to a podcast, taking a shower, watching a show, in a meeting at work, reading a good book, playing a game with my kids, or during a hundred other kinds of life experiences.

If you are curious. If you are always learning. If you are willing to let God put you in places of growth and renewal, you will not soon run out of ideas. And those ideas will turn into blogs, articles, even book chapters. This is how writing careers are born and sustained.

5) I write in short bursts, in the margins of life. I live a busy life. I have a full-time job managing a communications team at the ERLC. I’m on the pastoral staff of our church. I’m a husband and father of four children. I’ve never had a mountain stream or hideaway where I could spend uninterrupted hours cranking out words. I’m usually writing in the margins, so at night when the kids are in bed, early mornings, or weekends. Lately I’ve found it useful to actually schedule times to write–perhaps an hour or two during my work day or a morning on the weekend.

If the seeds of ideas have been planted in my head, I have found that I can crank out quite a bit in short, twenty minute bursts. Sometimes I have the luxury of an hour. If I’m working on a book-length project, I may take several days off and work in a coffee shop. The key for those short bursts is this: Write as much as you can in that space, until you have written that piece as best as you can. Then let the piece sit. Pass it around to a few friends for critique. Come back to it later, make some edits, and then publish.

The important thing is that if you expect to have the perfect setting, without distraction, without noise, without interruptions, you may not ever write. Most of my books have been written while my kids were running around me. At one point we were in a small two bedroom townhouse where the kitchen table doubled as my writing studio. I didn’t have a choice. I had to crank it out and so I did. One day you may have an idyllic, mountain hideaway where you can write while the beavers swim and the birds chirp. Until then, don’t let your setting or your schedule be an excuse to not be productive. You can do it.

6) I try not to be a jerk. This seems like a basic rule of thumb in all of life, but it’s especially true for writers. I’m amazed at how many writers are demanding and unkind to their editors. What they don’t realize is that the editors are the gatekeepers. The editors are also the unseen heroes who make your writing shine. I once had an editor tell me early on in my career: “Dan, you are not Hemingway. You need to be edited.” She was right.

Writing is artwork and so we can be sensitive. We can hang on to every word or phrase. But my advice is to hold our ideas firmly, but our words loosely. Let others shape your prose so it can be as good as it can be. Be open to critique. Welcome others’ input. Consider your work the David that the editor is trying to chisel from the stone. Do you want the world to see you at your best or do you want mistakes to obscure your ideas?

Being a jerk is not just detrimental to your career–editors move around and they talk–it’s also a reflection of a deeper need for sanctification. Gentleness and peace are fruits of the Spirit’s work within you. So don’t be a jerk. Be kind. Be thankful. Be teachable.

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