Opinion

George H.W. Bush was a great mentor and boss

President George H.W. Bush U.S. Capitol arrival ceremony

Members of Congress attend a ceremony for the arrival of President George H.W. Bush’s casket at the U.S. Capitol.
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Members of Congress attend a ceremony for the arrival of President George H.W. Bush’s casket at the U.S. Capitol.

Life in the George H. W. Bush Administration was very different from today’s Washington. I was fortunate to have been chosen by the elder Bush to serve at the U.S. Treasury Department tackling the subject I was most passionate about: American competitiveness.

President Bush surrounded himself with people he trusted, but he did not choose sycophants. He encouraged us to work with the “other side of the aisle” to develop policy that served America, with no pride of authorship. He never pointed at himself after a goal had been scored.

Ethics were not relative, they were absolute. Before I could occupy my office at 1500 Pennsylvania Avenue, the Secret Service and IRS scrutinized everything about my past. They even went through three years of checkbooks asking where every deposit came from.

Because I was director of corporate finance policy, I was called on by many financial industry lobbyists, including Trump’s current chief economic advisor Larry Kudlow, who was a lobbyist for Bear Stearns at the time. One Christmas I received a bottle of wine from a Solomon Brothers executive. I was instructed to send it back.

I will never forget a strategy meeting we had in Bush’s living room at the Naval Observatory when he was vice president and running for president. His amazingly strong but humble wife Barbara was needlepointing silently the entire time, while a bunch of self-important men debated their campaign ideas.

When we were about to wrap it up, Barbara made a comment that made it clear she had listened to every word of our conversation. And George Bush listened attentively to her. She was his most trusted adviser.

My bosses at Treasury were not political animals. In fact, none of them were political at all. Reporting to Secretary Nicholas Brady, a former Wall Street CEO and Bush’s Yale baseball teammate, were two Harvard Business School finance professors. When one of them left to become vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Jay Powell, the current chairman of the Fed, left Dillon Read to become my boss, with no political chops.

Bush was a one-term president because he lacked “the vision thing.” It is true that compared to his predecessor Ronald Reagan, Bush was not a big-picture guy.

He had so much experience in government that he considered it his job to tackle the myriad challenges that faced our country. One year, in drafting his State of the Union message, he solicited input from every agency. It was, as you might expect, a laundry list of unrelated priorities.

Rather than his words, his life was his message. Bush loved God and family first. He loved his country as much as any man who ever occupied the Oval Office. He did not make decisions based on how they would make him look. All he cared about was doing “the right thing.” What a great mentor and boss! I will miss him.

Community columnist Michael Jacobs is CEO of Jacobs Capital and on the faculty of UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.




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