The Benevolence of George H. W. Bush

Giving his way to the top.

Posted Dec 03, 2018

George H. W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States of America, was widely known as a gentleman. He was also a tremendous optimist, and that optimism led him to continue his compassionate work throughout his career as a public servant. Seligman’s (1998) research on explanatory styles has shown that there are many benefits for an optimistic individual.

President Bush also embodied the basic principles of social reciprocity: giving for a mutual benefit. Adam Grant (2013) identified a continuum of giving styles with “Givers” and “Takers” anchoring the extremes, and “Matchers” in the middle. “Givers” are persistently selfless, “Takers” are persistently selfish, and “Matchers” give in response to giving. Grant’s research showed evidence that the “Givers” are the ones who rise to the top of organizational hierarchies. It turns out that just like Richard Pryor’s character in the 1985 movie Brewster’s Millions, people want to help those who help them. According to Grant, one way to build goodwill is the five-minute favor, which refers to helping someone who asks for help if it takes less than five minutes to do so.  

President Bush was known for writing short letters to people with ferocious regularity. In the time since he passed away last week, many individuals have come forward with notes from President Bush and stories of his generosity. It was less of a manipulation strategy and more of a genuine way to express appreciation and to maintain social contacts. He genuinely loved making social connections. I witnessed this up close at a small event in the spring of 2003, and I was impressed by how enthusiastically the 78-year-old former President talked to numerous individuals. He loved to meet people.

His interests in people were authentic. I received one of his letters in October of 1986. As an assignment for our Cub Scout Den, we were each to pick an official at some level of government and write to them. I chose Vice President George Bush. I had been impressed by his record as Vice President, CIA Director, Ambassador, and Congressman. I was quite surprised when I received a hand-signed, personal letter in the mail from Vice President Bush. He was kind, supportive, and gracious in his letter. I’m not sure of the content of what I wrote to him, but from his response, I must have asked if he liked his job or not! Vice President Bush was halfway through his second term and I assume a very busy man. As a ten-year-old, I learned the implicit lesson that no one is ever too important to take the time to respond to someone. In his biography, written by his son, there were stories of the time he took to write to people who took the time to write to him, particularly children. It is a cherished letter and I hope to be as gracious to others as he was to me.

Giving is often viewed as a weakness in the business world, and as a known giver, this may have led to the famous characterization of Bush by some as a wimp. But the empirical research scorecard shows that humans reward other humans who give selflessly. Emblematic of compassionate conservatism, Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Civil Rights Act of 1991. He led the U.S. in the Gulf War to free Kuwait and saw communism collapse with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. In the end, he was a tough soldier who climbed out of an angry sea to spend his life making our world a better place.

Here is a link to a campaign/foreign policy speech that Vice President Bush gave at my alma mater, Westminster College, in 1988. In this speech, he speaks about the Soviet Union, Marxism, NATO, and states, “We’ll also seek human rights, the ultimate guarantor of a peaceful world.”


Bush, G. W. (2014). 41: A portrait of my father. New York: Random House.

Grant, A. (2013). Give and take: A revolutionary approach to success. New York: Viking.

Mather, R. D., & Ayers, K. (2013, September). The business wisdom of Montgomery Brewster’s uncle. [Review of Give and Take.]. Journal of Scientific Psychology, 23-24.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1998). Learned optimism. New York: Simon & Schuster.