Saturday, December 01, 2018

41: Mission Completed

No President of the United States has lived a longer life than George Herbert Walker Bush did and likely none as fulfilling. At the age of 94, his time on Earth has ended, and while the news of late last night was not a tremendous surprise, it still feels somewhat surreal, for all that he meant to the country and how I viewed him throughout my own life. An era continues to pass, but the outpouring of respect and emotion that is being given to President Bush now and in the days ahead should serve as a reminder for how he lived, the example he provided, and inherent contrast we cannot help but notice.

For some reason, I became interested in the unfolding 1988 Presidential campaign as a child and was rooting for the then Vice President to prevail. I remember watching parts of the convention, the debates, and  thirty years to the month before last night's news, working on an "exit poll" for my elementary school newspaper among those actually voting in my school's cafeteria. People in my neighborhood seemed to prefer Dukakis, at least at the hour I was asking them their preferences, but I woke up the next morning relieved to hear that George Bush was going to be President.

His swearing-in as President the next January was piped into our classrooms via the school's intercom and I remember so much about those four years, from the Berlin Wall coming down, to the victory in Desert Storm, to the scary images of the President becoming ill in Japan, to Dana Carvey's enduring impression on Saturday Night Live. By the time he ran for reelection, I was confused and disappointed that relatively so few Americans shared my enthusiasm for the incumbent and admiration for his inherent decency and quiet strength. A three-way election saw just over 37 percent of Americans vote the way I would have, but the President accepted the result with grace and humility. In a High School classroom, just after finishing a Final exam, I remember a television in a nearby room showing the swearing-in of the new President, somebody I knew could never measure up to George Bush, especially on the matter of character. Nowadays. all sorts of people will say that Bush 41 was probably the most successful one-term President in our history.

Politics became exciting in the next few years for many in the GOP who liked the Bush Family. George W. became Governor of Florida, and on his second try, Jeb was elected Governor of Florida. Their proud parents reveled in their success. As the 2000 cycle began, I was an early supporter of another man named George Bush and never wavered in my support of our 43rd, through political ups and downs, for nearly a decade. Most recently, I was surprised when Jeb Bush attempted to become the third member of his family to win the White House. While I was not very confident in how it would turn out, he was clearly the best candidate in that field to be President. The voters in the Republican Party chose to go in a different direction away from him and away from several others in that field who had much in common with George H.W. Bush, and I feel the Republican Party and the country itself has been worse off because of it.

While political trends and eras come and go though, George H.W. Bush was at the center of America's most successful political dynasty. The son of a United States Senator himself, George Bush succeeded in business, not on his family name, but on his own initiative, and then made his entry intp politics. He did not win every race, but his public service and loyalty to the country brought him to the highest office in the land. He then saw his two oldest sons become Governors of large states, with the eldest being a two-term President, who was lucky enough to have both his parents alive the entire time. Even now, a fourth consecutive generation Bush holds statewide office as George Bush's eldest grandchild, and namesake, George P. Bush was recently reelected to his second term as Texas Land Commissioner. The last public photo of the 41st President was of him casting his vote for his grandson.

Throughout his life, he was taught humility by his mother and the discouragement of bragging. Still though, George Bush proved he could be an aggressive political fighter when it called for it. He had already more than proved his mettle in war and the claims that were made of his being a "wimp" before become President were of course ludicrous.  He fought hard to hold and keep high office, but whether in victory or defeat, always put the well-being of the country first. He also valued friendships his entire life, which led to a very close relationship with Bill Clinton, the man who defeated him in a sometimes ugly campaign, after both men left the White House, and a recent closeness with Barack Obama, who was among his last visitors in Texas. The current President, who has of course said very nice words about the recently departed this past day in both a (ghost) written statement and in public remarks was by most accounts not someone that George H.W. Bush liked very much. Still, he was asked to attend the funeral of his predecessor on behalf of the nation he currently leads. In 2016, George H.W. Bush was among the anti-Trump Republicans who even voted for Hillary Clinton to be President, something that neither I nor his own two sons in the political arena could bring themselves to do. Out of all the votes that Secretary Clinton received in 2016, she should perhaps be most honored by that of George H.W. Bush.

I could seemingly go on for hours lauding the legacy and inspiration of George H.W. Bush. I would also that in anything I write, I could be remotely as eloquent as the words he spoke upon accepting the Republican Presidential nomination in August of 1988 at the New Orleans convention. Peggy Noonan is largely credited wit having drafted the speech, but the words spoken were quintessential Bush and captured his character and worldview. Beyond the well known "Read My Lips" pledge, which would become part of his political undoing, he spoke of a "kinder, gentler, nation" and the uniqueness of American action for goodness through a "thousand points of light." Not long ago, a political who currently holds office scoffed at the now trademark line of sorts, but it is clear what a thousand points of light means and how all of those, and many others, are what has always made America great.

As a very young man, George Bush, who left his High School graduation to volunteer to serve his country in World War II, nearly lost his life in the war. His passing is another reminder that the "Greatest Generation" grows smaller by the day. At the convention speech though, he recalled how when he was a torpedo bomber pilot, he was given "missions" to complete and how he saw his life through public service in the decades afterwards as missions to be completed.

He fought for his country, he served, he built, he led, as his words from the podium resonated and in a rare moment of "bragging", but a necessary one, he made clear that he was "that man" who was needed to sit at the desk as President of the United States. He declared he would work to bring about prosperity, opportunity, and peace throughout America and the world. An underdog at that point in the campaign, he wound up winning big and did his best to live up to the promise and then accepted the results when enough of the same voters chose to go in a different direction.

His retirement was eventful, even outside the political careers of his children, and filled with time with his very large family and some jumps out of airplanes, which were really about exorcising some ghosts from the war in which he lost his two crew mates, as he survived to live a long and prosperous life.

George Bush's final years saw him facing increasing health challenges and the prospect of facing life without his beloved Barbara. The longest married couple in Presidential history were parted earlier this year. While it was said that he still wanted to make it to 100 and beyond, it seemed likely that the couple would not be apart for too long. We can hope that they are reunited (along with daughter Robin), together once again.

As America once again approaches a new decade, we are in need of many more "points of light" who will honor the legacy of GHWB through public service and private decency. Even as we might fight vigorously for our values and against those who threaten them, either foreign or domestic, America could surely stand to be a bit kinder and gentler as well.

I hope that in his final hours, the 41st President of the United States realized that he completed every mission he had been given and that the country he loved and served his entire life will carry on in the same spirit.


At 8:13 AM, Anonymous jamesb said...

Nice remembrance CG.....


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