Had George Herbert Walker Bush not survived the downing of his U.S. Navy plane in 1943, he would have been an American hero. Had he survived and gone on to live a life of relative obscurity in pursuit of personal happiness, he would have been an American hero. As it turned out, having dedicated most of his life to service culminating in a term as president of the United States in a most tumultuous time, he was and is an American hero.
Service was a word very often on Bush’s lips. When asked about his family becoming a political dynasty, he used that word, while looking a bit embarrassed. Bush embodied in many ways the ethos of the New England aristocracy from which he was begotten, including the idea that to whom much is given, much is expected.
Bush’s father, Prescott Bush, was the son of an industrial magnate who would become a U.S. senator from Connecticut. George attended Greenwich Country Day School, Phillips Andover Academy, and Yale University. That’s an academic resume that in the mid- to late 20th century pretty much guarantees that when you are in the halls of power, you’ve been to birthday parties of some of the guys there, probably in third grade.
But in the midst of that tony educational and social life, between Andover and New Haven and like so many young American men, Bush risked everything he had to defend his country. He aced the prospect of death, or even worse, in our brutal fight with Japan. It would not be the last, or hardest, international battle he faced in his long career.
After college Bush struck out for the West — Texas, to be exact, which those of us in the Northeast are informed is not very similar to the Nutmeg State. Not only did he thrive there as a businessman, as his grandfather had, but once again he put his and his young family’s interests second to his country and community’s by entering the world of politics. He was not a natural. In those elections of the 1960s, he lost as many as he won, but did serve for a time the U.S. Congress.
Bush went on to serve as an ambassador, as our CIA director, as our vice president, and finally as the 41st president at a time more fraught with a fraying international order than any since Harry Truman, only this time with nuclear arsenals capable of destroying the world. He ushered this nation through those storms, desert and otherwise, safe and sound.
Until very recently, the news of Bush’s passing would have been a moment for the United States to come together and mourn a man who gave so much to his country. A graceful and decent society knows better than to attack or mock a man in the days after his death. Restraint in such moments is a small gesture of civility, one of many that is being chipped away at.
Those who decry the tone of our current president so quickly adopt it now, their opposition morphing into emulation. The attacks have been predictable. Like every Republican — and, let’s face it, probably everyone over 35 — Bush was allegedly a racist, a beneficiary of the “Southern Strategy,” who ran the Willie Horton Ad and opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He was allegedly corrupt, turning a blind eye to Iran Contra and issuing pardons to allies.
But the most common, and in fact the oldest, knock on Poppy Bush was his privilege, his wealth, and the fact that he was the scion of an oldish New England family (in fact they were 19th-century new rich). In 1988, Ann Richardson famously quipped that Bush was “born with a silver foot in his mouth.” But Bush was not a man who was born on third base and thought he hit a triple. He worked his whole life to earn that position in retrospect.
Bush, and many others of his cohort of New England gentlemen, had their own kind of privilege theory, so many years ago. He knew that he had been gifted incredible wealth and advantages, but that was not the privilege. The privilege was the opportunity that these advantages gave him to serve his community and country.
Yes, George H.W. Bush was a New England patrician, maybe the last WASP president in the old Yankee sense of the word, but his generation’s sense of noblesse oblige is something to be admired, not mocked. Of course, our nation is better off with the halls of power filled with a more diverse lot than a few people from the same places, schools, families, and tax brackets. But just how do you think we got here?
Those wealthy New Englanders who never wanted for anything, be they Bushes on the right or Kennedys on the left, focused on public service, and pushed their families into it, not to secure their own power and wealth — those were scarcely in doubt — but to ensure that every American had a fair shake to live the American dream in safety and security.
We must not allow our low politics and discourse to deaden us to the virtues of dignity and decency. When any man passes into the undiscovered country, he leaves a litany of decisions, actions, and words, some good, some bad. We all leave history as our judge.
The naysayers who simply cannot abide platitudes will whine about honesty, seeing the world as it is and not giving people a pass just because they were president. Fine, if that soothes some troubled part of your soul, then partake of the venomous balm. But I suggest we take the example of George H.W. Bush, who so rarely publicly rebuked his opponents in mean-spirited ways and was often mocked for being too nice, and not tough enough.
Bush’s example is a simple one. Serve. Think a little less about yourself and a little more about others, about your country. That service was Bush’s true privilege and the most meaningful message we can take from his life.