By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist
Like so many of my fellow Americans, I was riveted and saddened by the news of the death of President George H.W. Bush. Even after the thrill of Saturday night’s unbelievable SEC Championship Game, my mind has continued to drift back to Bush’s life and legacy.
In some ways, he is often overlooked as the only single term president to hold the office since 1980. Nevertheless, he is perhaps the most consequential president in that timespan, as he helped guide the western world through the end of the Cold War. Though I was born several months after Ronald Reagan took the oath of office, Bush’s campaign and subsequent election are the first I can remember, and his death marks the end of an important era of American cultural and political life.
So much of the commentary of Bush’s life and death focus on his decency as a politician, a husband, and a father. He was, as President Barack Obama remarked upon awarding Bush with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a gentleman. Some of those praising Bush in death were harsh and even cruel towards him when he was in public life, but there is scant evidence that Bush carried the slightest grudge.
Many others understood, and Bush along with them, that politics requires being difficult, but it in the end it does not require being ugly. It wasn’t just Bush that understood this; the Republican Party that supported him for several decades valued his character and decency, not as means to political ends, but as values in themselves.
It is common among grassroots Republicans to deride the establishment wing of the party, but as John Podhoretz noted in a piece for Commentary in early 2016, Bush’s administration was really the last gasp of the old GOP establishment. It has since then been replaced by both a conservative movement that was once more ideological but in recent years has been far more populist. In any event, there is much we can learn from Bush in our own lives, and in our political lives together. For starters, even if a leader is doctrinaire with regard to political philosophy, there is still a lot to be said for a congenial character and a willingness to compromise.
Men like Bush, or, for that matter, women like his wife, Barbara, are not accidents. While some people are predisposed to kindness or good manners, the truth is that character must be cultivated. I fear that we have taken for granted so much of what made men and women like this great. In our rush to be comfortable and free of judgment, we overlook that the structures and guide rails of manner and custom help shape our moral imagination.
We often fall into the trap of thinking that life is just an accident; just some sort of serendipitous series of events like in an Audrey Hepburn movie. The truth is that good and decent societies – and the good, decent, and virtuous politics that flow from them – are not accidents, but are instead the results of countless men and women who understand that the blessings of this life demand from them a responsibility to serve others and treat them with decency.
Bush was noted for his classic, preppy style of dress. Those repp stripe ties don’t tie themselves; a man must put them on every morning. Likewise, everything from daily manners and willingness to serve in public life have to be sincere, conscious choices. In age when we are constantly told to check our privilege, men like Bush understood that privilege brought with it a great responsibility to be a wise steward of life’s blessings. Then again, Bush delayed college to fly planes for the Navy in World War II, and was shot down over the Pacific. I’d say that counts as checking one’s privilege.
Bush was often criticized for being a patrician WASP, but it was the virtues and ethics of his own upbringing that made him special. He understood, as the recently-deceased Stan Lee taught us, that with great power comes great responsibility. Elites in America are often derided, and I generally think this is unfair. If anything, it is the failure of our elite classes to continue to model the virtues of responsibility, sacrifice, and decorum that has so weakened our civic culture. A free society needs men and women who choose to lead of their own volition. Bush understood this so well, and it was evident in his decades of public life, and in the remembrances that have flooded our news and social media in the last three days.
I said earlier life is not nearly as accidental as we like to think. This is true in politics and public life, where we often get the leadership we deserve. If our leaders are bad, then we have to reckon with the fact that we put them in office. Yet, if posterity regards our leaders as good, then the judgment of our own lives is strong, as well. Perhaps life was really that perfect when I was nine years old, but George H.W. Bush was a great man put in office by an even greater country. He represented so many of the things that have made America great in the past. His example is there for us, and while many today would confuse goodness and decency with weakness, we would be that much better if we contemplated and embraced the example he left for us. As with John McCain, the America of George Herbert Walker Bush did not need to be made great, because it was already so.
Most important of all, as we enter the season of Advent, let us remember that for President Bush, his hope was in the Word made Flesh, and the joy he now knows is the same that awaits all who share in that eternal expectation.