This week, the 41st president of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush, is being buried, and the nation which he led for four years, and served for a lifetime, is mourning. Or at least should be.
Accolades for the senior President Bush have flooded in from disparate corners, and it has been good to see. Conveniently, and appropriately, forgotten is much of the vitriol that was directed toward the man from the left while he was president. For those who were around then, the hostility he endured from opponents of the military actions in Panama and Kuwait foreshadowed what his son would endure a decade later (though the rapid and unequivocal success of Desert Storm did serve to offer a limit to the abuse, a limit unafforded to GWB). He was criticized, expectedly one supposes, for policy decisions, but seemed also to be a target for petty class jealousies. One recalls, for instance, a NYT’s piece (I forget the author) which castigated his bearing of three first names as being somehow indicative of aristocratic aloofness, and lampooned, among other things, his Andover education for the same pointless reason.
Criticism, of course, came from the right as well; particularly revolving around the reversal of his “read my lips: no new taxes” oath he offered at the 1988 Republican National Convention – a pledge which became, arguably, anachronistic in light of the deficit-explosion created by the Savings and Loan collapse, which he could not, two years earlier, have foreseen.
It is fitting that President Bush’s successes have been highlighted this week, even as those accomplishments have garnered distressingly little notoriety in the pantheon on American popular history. It could be because Mr. Bush served only a single term; but it is accurate to say that he was perhaps the most consequential one-term president of the 20thcentury. His brilliant execution of the first Gulf War, which propelled him to popularity levels virtually unimaginable in the last decade, would have been enough. But it must not be forgotten that GHW Bush navigated the U.S., and the world, through the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the grotesque, dehumanizing ideology it existed to inflict. This was perhaps the most epochal event in U.S. and world history of the last 100 years, and leading the free world through this time as ably as he did was a task which could not be borne by a lesser man.
Substantial attention, properly and blissfully, has been devoted less to the ephemeral political happenings of his day, and more to the man’s stellar character. Indeed, his election in 1988 may have represented the last time that character still mattered in presidential politics (his son notwithstanding). Mr. Bush, by all accounts public and private, personified traits all too often viewed as trite or archaic today – duty, class, loyalty, and above all honour. These are traits that were endemic to his generation, and which appear to dying out with it.
Perhaps the most poignant image of the past few days was captured when former Senator Bob Dole – Bush’s 1988 primary opponent, and fellow WWII combat veteran – stood for what may be one of his last times from his wheelchair and saluted the flag-draped casket with a frail left hand (his right arm remaining crippled to this day from wounds received in Italy 74 years ago.) In that moment, one got the sense that Sen. Dole was saying goodbye not only to an old friend, but to the generation, the Greatest Generation, which that old friend represented. GHW Bush was the last American president from that era, and his passing is symbolic of that generations passing. Part of the grief that ought to be felt in this nation is at the distinct, and deeply troubling possibility that the values and character embodied and lived by that generation are passing with it.
Those men and women, contemporaries of President GHW Bush, born amongst the tribulations of the Depression, forged in the crucible of WWII, who defeated the Nazis and the Japanese as youngsters, and ultimately defeated Soviet communism by their retirement years, vouchsafed us a nation, a civilization, a way of life, and an example of how to live it.
It may be true, as the saying goes, that we will never again see a man the likes of George Herbert Walker Bush; but for the sake of our country and our civilization, I pray we have not given up on trying.
Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and recovering journalist based in Denver. He is also an energy and environmental policy fellow at Centennial Institute.