As the only president to serve just one term in the last thirty years, it’s remarkable how well George H.W. Bush was liked by all who knew him.
The 41st president was known for his sense of humor, friendships with unlikely acquaintances, deft hand at foreign policy and a sporting spirit whether playing baseball or horseshoes. The 94-year-old died Friday.
The president and former vice president had a long and distinguished career, serving in the armed forces, as a senator and as head of the CIA. His presidency and public persona are for many an artifact of another time, where political opponents could find common ground and a man who called himself “boring” could capture the nation’s heart.
Here are seven of the president’s most inspirational phrases over a long career of public service—with lessons for communicators and PR pros in every line:
1. “I have opinions of my own—strong opinions—but I don’t always agree with them.”
As a fixture of the public sphere, Bush was no stranger to controversy. As a leader, he stressed the importance of listening to others and questioning long-held assumptions. For communicators, it is essential to have a strong point of view, but you must also be able to take in new information and respond to your audience. If your message isn’t winning anyone over, digging in deeper will only alienate the people you need to help you succeed.
2. “The American Dream means giving it your all, trying your hardest, accomplishing something. And then I’d add to that, giving something back. No definition of a successful life can do anything but include serving others.”
Bush spent decades in public life in service to his country and his values. Following the announcement of his passing, leaders around the world talked about his example and spoke about his tireless devotion to others:
America has lost a patriot and humble servant in George Herbert Walker Bush. While our hearts are heavy today, they are also filled with gratitude. Our thoughts are with the entire Bush family tonight – and all who were inspired by George and Barbara’s example. pic.twitter.com/g9OUPu2pjY
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) December 1, 2018
PR pros and communicators can always find ways to give back, through service organizations, volunteering, corporate social responsibility and other efforts. As consumers continue to grow more aware of the footprint of companies and public organizations, it will only become more important for communicators to live their values and give back to their community.
3. “The Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push again. And I’ll say to them: ‘Read my lips, no new taxes.'”
This was Bush’s most infamous quote, and one that many have claimed cost him the presidency in 1992. It’s a cautionary tale for communicators about drawing a line in the sand. Be prepared to back up your absolute statements—or find another way to talk about your goals. A strong sentence is useless if all it does is make a promise you will have to break.
4. “America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.”
Many have remembered Bush for his decency in public rhetoric and his ability to welcome opponents and those that would poke fun at his office. Bush would famously become friends with comedian Dana Carvey, who poked fun at him on “Saturday Night Live.”
Communicators would do well to note that decency and kind words still win out in the long run and can preserve your reputation.
5. “Losing is never easy. Trust me, I know something about that.”
Bush suffered a few setbacks in his time, and none perhaps more difficult than losing the presidency in 1992 to Bill Clinton. After a long and storied career, he could still feel the sharp sting of failure. His words are a reminder for everyone: losing still hurts, no matter how much success has come before it.
When you do suffer a setback, a crisis or an online backlash, give yourself permission to work through your emotions before storming back to work. Losing is hard—but responding to loss with grace can make all the difference.
6. “I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course. … Your success is now our country’s success. I am rooting for you.”
Bush famously left a letter for his successor and political rival Bill Clinton upon leaving the White House. His words reveal a generosity of spirit that is rare in today’s acrid climate.
7. “I will never apologize for the United States—I don’t care what the facts are. … I’m not an apologize-for-America kind of guy.”
For communicators used to the cycle of online backlash and rote apology, these words might feel a little bold. Yet, apologizing isn’t always the right course—especially if your heart is not in your message. Audiences can sniff out inauthenticity in a New York minute, and flubbing around in the dark for the right phrase to quiet your critics will never serve as well as a strong statement based on your values.
When you do feel the need to apologize, be as direct and forceful as you would if you were rebuffing a backlash. A crisis is no time to be timid—something that every great president knows all too well.