President George H.W. Bush, “America’s last great soldier-statesman,” as the historian Jon Meacham put it, passed away over the weekend.
A one term President, the public did not look upon him with fondness at the time of his exit. What should his legacy be? Who was he?
The answer is most aptly encapsulated as follows: A young Lieutenant Bush received heavy Japanese fire flying a torpedo bomber into an island stronghold. The plane was terribly damaged; failure was imminent. The future president ensured that all crew members had parachuted off the plane before leaving himself. Many did not make to safety. Overcome by grief when learning of the fate of his crew-members, he wept. Picked up by a naval rescue team, Bush continued onward to fly 58 combat missions, receiving numerous military honors.
That was George Bush.
President Bush lived a life of luxury and enchantment. Receiving the best of preparatory school and patrician New England education, he had the world at his disposal. Money would never be an object for the affable “Poppy,” as he was known to his friends. Yet, he forewent admission to Yale to serve as an officer in World War II, and did so knowing full well the risk that laid ahead. He did so because he believed in more than himself–a great American ideal.
He would instruct his children: “Tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Be strong. Do your best. Try hard. Forgive. Stay the course.” Meacham notes, “that was, and is the most American of creeds.”
This creed stemmed from his upbringing, his formative years. It is of course quite easy to lambast the WASP power elite, in their exclusivity and material wealth unshared. The sins of committed should not be overlooked and should be criticized roundly. Yet, this sells short the virtues of our bygone ruling class. Ross Douthat from the New York Times writes, “Those virtues included a spirit of noblesse oblige and personal austerity and piety that went beyond the thank-you notes and boat shoes and prep school chapel-going — a spirit that trained the most privileged children for service, not just success, that sent men like Bush into combat alongside the sons of farmers and mechanics in the same way that it sent missionaries and diplomats abroad in the service of their churches and their country.”
From Mark Zuckerberg to Cory Booker, to even Ted Cruz, our new power elite seems to have ignored this idea in their education. As the old adage goes, “with great power, comes great responsibility.” Governance is not easy. But when one has the preeminent relatability (which despite the coverage of the 1992 election, Bush had) that comes with serving the greater good with Americans from all walks of life, it gets easier. Whether it be the military or a low-wage job, interacting with ‘everyday Americans’ on a day-to-day basis with a level playing field is essential to understand their plight. When so many hyper-educated (especially college-age) Americans have never worked a job that leaves them physically in pain at the end of their days, it becomes dubious to say that they have a sense of any modern lamentations of life, according to Charles Murray.
Of course, the President was not always a paragon of perfect policy realized. The HIV epidemic tarnishes Bush’s legacy, who seemed to have no solution and perhaps even sympathy for a portion of the population that desperately needed help. He was declared a flip-flopper when he raised taxes after assuring he would not. Yet, his foreign and domestic policy achievements outweigh his failures. He ensured a peaceful end to the Cold War and helped craft a stable post-cold war order. NAFTA and the ADA were forerunners to some of the most impactful modern domestic policy.
Regardless of what the President engaged in, he did it with a sense of class and pride gone in modern American politics. This sense of executive dignity died in the Lewinsky scandal, and again thousands of times thereafter. For Bush, politics while at times an ignoble game, need not be nasty. Look no further than his parting note to President Clinton as a signpost for this sentiment. What the President engaged in was not always politically expedient to his constituents (e.g. when he voted for civil rights in a largely pro-Jim Crow Texas congressional district), but he put his ideas ahead of his politics. His fusion big-tent conservatism brought diverse voices from the center and right to prominence, and did so in such a way that his presidency estranged few, from Wall Street to even the Bible Belt.
History will look fondly on President Bush. He was not some privileged white male, seeking only his own personal gain. No, the man had a higher loyalty that he relentlessly pursued and used his talents and blessings to heed his call to this loyalty, even when his contemporaries detracted.
The problem then becomes how to market these values that George Bush strived ever upward for to an ever-changing cultural landscape. Duty, loyalty, and honor are seen as antiquated concepts. Religiosity, community, and self-worth (which I see as fairly interlinked ideals) have never been lower. Loneliness has never been higher, and that is partially due to an abandonment of the values of those that come before us. Liberal or conservative, the modern citizen who desires a life well lived and a nation thriving must find ways to make these concepts important and accessible again. It should not take the death of a president to understand this crisis of leadership.
Some of the President’s parting words to his longtime friend and colleague James Baker: “Where are we going Bake?” Baker replied, “We’re going to heaven.”
“That’s where I want to go,” Bush said with a smile. I’m fairly certain he’ll get there. Unless the American public and elite alike are rendered aware of our spiritual and moral erosion as a nation, I’m not convinced we will.