During his eulogy at President George H.W. Bush’s recent funeral, Bush’s biographer, the eminent scholar Jon Meacham, referred to our nation’s 41st president as “our last great soldier-statesman … a 20th century founding father” who “governed with virtues that most closely resemble those of Washington and of Adams, of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt, of Truman and of Eisenhower, of men who believed in causes larger than themselves.”
Powerful words that place our 41st president among an august pantheon of America’s leaders. A place he has earned.
George H.W. Bush has also been called the “Last Gentleman,” someone who ascended the pinnacle of power yet was not seduced by it, was not made callused by it, but wielded it in a way that left him and the nation better. An “imperfect man that left us a more perfect union.”
As someone who served in the military during the time of the first Gulf War, I have always admired and had genuine affection for Bush 41. The leadership he displayed during that military campaign was one for the ages, but even more than that, to me he communicated a sincerity, a humility and a decency one could not help but admire.
Last week, as I watched the ceremonies and events paying homage to a true national hero, it was very obvious that a broad cross-section of Americans felt the same as me.
His passing has been noted as the end of an era. But to me, the spirit and values he represented — decency, civility, resiliency, compassion and intellect, just to name a few — are not traits we need to allow to be consigned to history. They are desperately needed today. Like runners in a relay race, we need to grab that baton of values and virtues he embodied and keep them alive in our communities and throughout our nation.
Demographers are painting a stark picture. We are increasingly a divided people. Geographic polarization is increasing as many Americans choose to live in communities and states where their political values predominate. The polarization is becoming so virulent that surveys are showing Democrats and Republicans alike would prefer their child not marry someone whose political values differ from theirs. “Interparty marriage” is beginning to compete with “interracial marriage as a family taboo.”
And of course, the information bubble that so many live in only drives the division deeper. Sadly, as one observer has noted, this is an “age in which we judge one another morally depending on where we stand politically.”
But to take up the baton of virtues that our 41st president displayed would be to build bridges of understanding and community, respect and civility between each other. General Colin Powell poignantly shared one of H.W. Bush’s sayings: “Just because you run against someone does not mean you have to be enemies.”
After his crushing defeat in 1992, Bush responded with the class, decency, sincerity and compassion we are so missing today. When Bill Clinton walked into the oval office for the first time on Jan. 20, 1993, a handwritten note from George H.W. Bush was there waiting for him. It read in part:
“When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.
“I wish you great happiness here. … There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.
“You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.
As we learned during the funeral services, these two men and their families became remarkably close over the years. During the eulogy for his dad, George W. Bush referred to Clinton and a small group of other men as “brothers from another mother.”
What the “Last Gentleman” and one of our “20th century founding fathers” understood so well — and we need to embrace — is that difference is not the enemy of democracy, but one of its great strengths. He, as Meacham noted, “understood that compromise was not a dirty word, but was the oxygen of democracy.” He was well aware that an ideologically inflexible people cannot stand together long against the storm of adversities that will surely come to test the bonds of political allegiance among a people.
Only through having cultivated sincere and genuine relations among each other can the bonds of unity hold against the assaults of partisanship.
“America,” it was said of Bush 41’s passing, “is not just mourning a man but an ideal.” May we seek to emulate that ideal and not let it pass and rest onto the pages of history. Let’s ensure the ideal he left lives on as we summon the courage to grab hold of that baton of virtues and live them out so that we, our communities, and our nation can be better.