With the passing of former President George H.W. Bush, his family has lost a loving father and grandfather, and the people of Maine have lost a special friend. While the former president was proud of his Texas citizenship, Maine played a special role in his life. The Bush family home in Kennebunkport, where he spent most of the summers of his life, was for him, as it is for many others, a place of beauty and renewal of the spirit.
Bush was an honest and honorable man who devoted his life to public service. He loved Maine, as I do, and we spoke often of our shared affection. It was an honor to know and to work with him.
I had the privilege of serving as majority leader of the U.S. Senate during the four years of his presidency. We had many differences, of course, especially in the last two years of his term. But we worked together on many important issues that benefited the people of Maine and the U.S. We enacted much important legislation, like the Americans with Disabilities Act, which for the first time in our nation’s history made it possible for people with disabilities to lead lives of independence and opportunity.
It seems quaint now, at a time of trillion dollar budget deficits, but a year into Bush’s tenure, he and all congressional leaders, Republican and Democrat, were alarmed by a Congressional Budget Office report that projected that the federal budget deficit could reach $150 billion in the coming fiscal year. There was agreement on the need for action, but disagreement on what that action should be.
For several months we negotiated, at the Capitol and at the White House. We even took the extraordinary step of secluding White House staff and congressional leaders at a nearby Air Force base for intense no-holds barred discussions. The rhetoric was hot and the progress slow, but gradually we worked out a compromise — a mixture of spending cuts and tax increases — that was painful for everyone, the president and Congress, Republicans and Democrats. But it helped set the country on the path toward a balanced budget.
Of all the legislative history of his tenure, what I most and best recall is the central role Bush played in the long and difficult struggle to protect the health of Americans from the harmful effects of polluted air. In the aftermath of World War II, there began to emerge clear and convincing evidence of the harmful effects of industrial and automotive emissions on the health of millions of our most vulnerable citizens. The first corrective step was taken in 1970 with the passage of the Clean Air Act, authored by Maine’s great Sen. Ed Muskie. A second step took place in 1977 when that act was amended to extend some of its compliance requirements and to bring under its scope new industrial sites in those areas in which the law’s air quality standards were not being met.
But just a few years later, when I entered the Senate and Bush became vice president, it was clear that further changes were needed to meet new challenges, like acid rain. For nine years I was among a small bipartisan group of senators who sought to move legislation forward. But President Ronald Reagan and many large industries were opposed, and there was no progress. Then, in 1988, Bush was elected to the presidency. Within a month of his inauguration, in a sharp break with the policies of his predecessor, Bush announced that he would propose legislation for a new, more effective Clean Air Act. That courageous decision made action on clean air possible. Suddenly, dramatically, the question shifted from “Will there be a clean air bill?” to “What will be in the Clean Air bill?”
Nearly two years of complex negotiations and controversial legislative battles followed. But in the end, a major legislative package of improvements to the Clean Air Act passed in the House and the Senate, and was then signed into law by Bush.
It was a huge bipartisan accomplishment. In 2011, the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of our nation’s leading environmental organizations, concluded that “The Clean Air Act is a genuine American success story and one of the most effective tools in U.S. history for protecting public health.” Among many other health benefits, the NRDC estimated that the 1990 amendments saved nearly 2 million lives. On their behalf, I thank President George H.W. Bush for helping to make those changes possible.
May he rest in peace, secure in the knowledge that in his public service he made a difference in the lives of his fellow Mainers, and all Americans.
George J. Mitchell was Senate majority leader during George H.W. Bush’s presidency.