Farewell to Bush ’41’: His Character Counted

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Former President George H.W. Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush arrive at the White House on May 31, 2012, for a portrait unveiling ceremony. Photo by Jeff Malet.

A 94-year-old man, who had been fading fast in the last hours of his life, died peacefully in his bed surrounded by his family, including children and grandchildren, and friends, the loving, nurturing, human architecture of flesh and blood.

His passing, only months after the passing of his wife of 73 years, amounts to the surrender of a lifetime of events, deep and short breaths, dreams, days and moments sacred, difficult, heartbreaking, joyful and dramatic. This would be true for every man moving forward to the next destination at the end of life, but this was not every man, or Everyman.

George H.W. Bush , 94, died late Friday, Nov. 30. He was the 41st president of the United States, father of the 43rd president of the United States. That fact makes all the difference in the world and brings his death closer to us, because we are among the people who are usually listed more formally as “survived by” in the death notices and obituaries.

That list is much larger than the familial list, which is large and held close: six children and 14 grandchildren. We citizens are survivors, too, as witnessed by the enormous amount of attention, social media comments, pictures and images and videos. There are tributes by former presidents and the current one, world leaders and every person that has had even a brush of contact with him, seen him on television, during debates, at a rally, in a black car passing on Inauguration Day, the sheer yardage of stories, reflections and memories that have burst into print and onto screens of all sizes unbidden

Bush, an often modest man who himself admitted that he did not rank among the great public speakers of his time, seems in death to grow not only in stature — a natural phenomenon in the aftermath of such events — but in sheer size as a human being. Suddenly, and daily and nightly now, his image is in our minds, on the nightly news: the almost teeth-bared vow to “Read my lips, no new taxes,” Bush in China, at the United Nations, as CIA director, running for the Senate twice (and losing), golfing and fishing, in a Yale baseball uniform, in a Maine enclave and at a throw-out-the-first ball occasion.

Always there are the crowds, his fellow politicians and government officials, his train of public service in an amazingly large number of institutions.

Always, there is Barbara (formerly Pierce), turning from dark-haired teen beauty to the white fox, touching, hugging, poking, even, for 73 years.

Always there are the gatherings of families, sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters, the future always thickening and beckoning.

Always there is the absence: the beloved 3-year-old who shockingly died from leukemia in 1953, Pauline Robinson “Robin” Bush.

We have glances of the young, dashing bomber pilot, whom Barbara Bush had called “the most beautiful creature I had ever laid eyes on when first meeting him, handsome, thin as a rail, even dashing, who volunteered at 18 and was almost killed in a crash.” He was a decorated, genuine authentic hero.

He wrote letters, made friends across legislative aisles. Bill Clinton, even after a bitter campaign in which he defeated Bush’s bid for a second term, became like a relative, referred to by George W. Bush as “my brother from another mother.” He had a capacity for making and keeping friends just about forever. His secretary of state and lifelong friend James Baker was at his bedside at the end, and heard him say by speakerphone to George W.: “I love you, too.”

If the eloquence did not always shine through, the empathy did (despite the public sense of his disconnect from ordinary folks due to his privileged upbringing), and his love of not only his immediate family but of Americans and America. He served Ronald Reagan loyally, but was willing to move to the center, off-base, if you will, in support of more moderate-to-liberal issues.

His presidency — his legacy — was astonishingly thick with events that others might not have handled nearly as well.

During his time as president, the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet empire collapsed, a monumental process and event — initiated during Reagan’s time, and made possible by Gorbachev — that could have led to fiery chaos, wars and anarchy, but did not. Bush did not dance on the grave of the Soviet Union, treat it as a cause for celebration or a triumph of arms. He nurtured the events as an opportunity to be taken and a problem to be solved, the latter demonstrated by a failed attempted coup in Russia.

His reply to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait was equally measured, but resolute: this aggression would not stand, and did not. Bush built an effective coalition, which included Arab states, that used maximal and devastating force to win what was a short war and major defeat. He resisted arguments to invade Iraq and topple Hussein, for which he was criticized mightily. You could argue that he kept the peace, even by mounting a limited war.

In the end, Bush’s character counted. While he often used tough and questionable tactics in campaigns, he was a major proponent of bipartisanship, of seeing Congress and government itself as a gathering of cohorts, friends and peers, not a battleground. In this he showed grace, curiosity and often courage. That came through in the mounting tributes — and in the innate decency and self-deprecating sense of humor that he displayed on Saturday Night Live in a deft, stone-faced and funny response to comedian Dana Carvey’s impression of him.

As we come up to the time of a fitting funeral for “41” at the National Cathedral on Wednesday, Dec. 5 (which President Trump is expected to attend), we may hear that phrase of his again, when Bush called for a “kinder, gentler America” in his 1988 presidential acceptance speech. Maybe that approach will make America great again, indeed.

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