When celebrities and political figures pass on, my default position is to let it go without writing or saying anything about them. Social media tributes feel trite and unsatisfying. Plus, why should you care what I think about someone I didn’t know?
America mourns former President George H.W. Bush today, though, which makes it prudent to share some thoughts on steady, sober leadership at this juncture.
On election day 1988, my Dad took me with him to vote (though, for some reason, we couldn’t go into the booths; I don’t remember why). Later, at school that day, I taped a lined piece of notebook paper from my desk, “BUSH” proudly penciled across it in large block letters. (Two desks over, a kid named David dropped a Dukakis sign.)
Even though I was rooting for Bush, I was a little nervous. Despite living through two years of President Jimmy Carter’s administration, Ronald Reagan was really the only President I had ever known. How would things be different, I wondered, with another President?
It turned out, not that different.
Over the next four years, I started following the news a little more. The Cold War ended, and the Berlin Wall fell. My fifth-grade history teacher, watching a November 1989 newscast showing people chipping away at that concrete monstrosity, shook his head, turned to our class, and told us that these were amazing times and that we were lucky to be living through them. It took years of reading about history before I appreciated just how right he was.
In 1991, the United States went to war with Iraq. My Mom cried the night the air strikes started. CNN burst into the national consciousness with Peter Arnett, John Holliman, and Bernard Shaw reporting live from Baghdad. President Bush announced the strikes, leaving no question of why he felt the war was justified, or of his resolve. America had not been at war in my lifetime, but seeing the President appear at once grave and purposeful let everyone know that everything would be okay.
Then came the 1992 election, the first one I really sank my teeth into. I knew President Bush’s positions, backward and forward. I engaged everyone I could, relishing debate with my teachers, my fellow students, and with the bottom of a trash can after my fellow students decided I was lame and needed to shut up. (That’s not 100% true. Maybe 95%, 97% tops.)
(Fun story: I showed up at the eighth grade Halloween dance wearing a George Bush mask as my costume; when I walked in the school doors the teacher chaperoning that dance took one look and said, “That’s gotta be Eltringham.”)
When Bill Clinton won that election, I was crushed. Crushed! How could our country do that? I wondered. What would the country be like with a President I so vehemently disagreed with?
It turned out, not that different.
There has been plenty written about the Bush family’s commitment to public service, and the very concept carries a whiff of the air of aristocratic nobility which made George Bush such an unsympathetic candidate in 1992. Yet in that concept is a sort of humility, too; it’s an acceptance that no one person is truly bigger than the times, and the best ideals worth fighting for are generational in scope. If you’re committed to public service it means being committed to being a cog in the wheel of progress – and one that will most definitely get replaced.
In other words, you put a lot of effort into making things seem not that different in all the right ways.
Bush was a one-term President who was roundly rejected by the country he served – one of only two elected Presidents since Herbert Hoover who lost out on a second term. Yet the only time he ever uttered a bitter word was in jest during a 1994 Saturday Night Live gag when his impersonator (and pal) Dana Carvey hosted. Bush’s loss might have been a historic anomaly, but he never made it seem abnormal.
President Bush, from his initial victory, through his successes, and into his final defeat, taught that the country moves on and the world keeps spinning. That’s an important lesson for people to hear (and, sometimes, re-hear). Not many get a chance to teach it, and fewer do it well.
As we celebrate the life of President Bush, it’s fashionable to look at the current state of politics and say we need people cut from his mold. Maybe that’s the wrong lesson. As we remember our former President, maybe it’s better to remember his lesson too – that even if our national politics seem to be topsy-turvy, everything will probably be okay in the end.