Thursday, December 6, 2018

After George H.W. Bush, focusing on what matters -- Dec. 6, 2018 column


The National Day of Mourning, the state funeral and the private burial are over, but let’s not tuck away the shared experience of celebrating former President George Herbert Walker Bush’s life.

If we take nothing from the week’s events, the pause in our toxic partisanship will be just that: a pause.

Indeed, TV commentators in recent days kept assuring us our national dyspepsia will be back before we know it. Some seemed to almost relish its return, perhaps because meanness and name-calling animate the airwaves and Internet.

I don’t doubt they’re right. There’s little appetite for civility, the conventional wisdom tells us. But if that’s so, why were millions of Americans mesmerized by the farewell to a president whose calling card was gentlemanliness?  

Even those of us who were not fans of some of Bush’s politics and policies – the Willie Horton campaign ad and his choice of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court come to mind -- were drawn to his life’s lessons.

It would be a shame to waste this moment of reflection.  

Bush, who was 94 when he died, orchestrated his funeral at National Cathedral from words to hymns. He chose as speakers those who would talk about his roles as father, friend, patriot, president and parishioner.  

His biographer Jon Meacham explained in his eulogy that after Bush’s near-death experience as a Navy fighter pilot in World War II, “To him, his life was no longer his own. There were always more missions to undertake, more lives to touch and more love to give.”

In death, Bush fulfilled one final mission: He reminded us what matters in life.

“His life code, as he said, was `Tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Be strong. Do your best. Try hard. Forgive. Stay the course,’” Meacham said. “And that was and is the most American of creeds.”

When Meacham read his eulogy to Bush, the former president came back with typical humor and humbleness: “That’s a lot about me, Jon,” he said, according to Bush spokesman Jim McGrath.

Former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, a close personal friend, called Bush a man “of such great humility,” adding dryly, “Those who travel the high road of humility in Washington, D.C., are not bothered by heavy traffic.”

Bush’s simple credo was: “What would we do without family and friends?” Simpson said.

Former President George W. Bush said his dad was genuinely optimistic, “And that optimism guided his children and made each of us believe that anything was possible.” 
His father “looked for the good in each person and usually found it,” the 43rd president said.

The implicit comparison with President Donald Trump, who sat on the front row with every other living president, was stark. Trump did not speak, although he’d already said plenty about Bush and the former presidents, several of whom were frosty towards him.

When Bush died Nov. 30, Trump put out a glowing statement and was by all accounts very gracious to the Bush family, sending his plane to transport the casket and family to Washington, inviting the Bushes to stay at Blair House and paying a sympathy call there. He was acting the way a president should act.

But he and Bush were far from close. Trump had gutted the presidential campaign of Bush’s son Jeb with the epithet “low energy.” The elder Bush was quoted as calling Trump a “blowhard.”

As recently as July, Trump mocked Bush’s “thousand points of light” concept of volunteerism, saying at a campaign rally in Montana, “Thousand points of light – I never quite got that one. What the hell is that? Has anyone ever figured that one out?”

When the elder Bush was president, Trump said he liked and supported him but blasted Bush’s goal of a “kinder, gentler” country.

“I think if this country gets any kinder or gentler, it’s literally going to cease to exist,” Trump said in a Playboy interview in 1990.

That was absurd then and even more so now.

But if we want a kinder, gentler America, we have to start acting like it.  And that would truly make America great again.     

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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