They say he was from another era, another point in time when respect mattered, humility was a virtue and decency was effective. They also follow these observations by noting that such times are gone forever, relegated to history, never to be resurrected.
But maybe that’s not right.
The tributes that poured in following the passing of George H. W. Bush were sufficient to get everyone to re-examine a presidency many had believed mediocre. A new perspective emerged in the days following the elder Bush’s death and it became a more enlightened alternative to what’s going on at present. There was talk of the how powerfully he managed to build a global coalition for the Gulf War, of the fall of the Soviet Union, the reunification of the two Germanys, the run-up to the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians and support for those global institutions that had emerged out of the Second World War. He has had his detractors, past and present, but they were dwarfed this week by a broader life.
Frequently overlooked were his domestic achievements. Bush passed more major domestic legislation that any other president, save Lyndon Johnson and FDR. The Americans With Disabilities Act, the farm bill, the crime bill, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and the Clean Air Act – these and more were masterstrokes of the time.
Yet, trapped as he was between the Gipper (Reagan) and the Comeback Kid (Clinton), he slowly got squeezed out of our collective consciousness.
Until this week, that is. As with the passing of John McCain, it almost seemed like America has unleashed a pent-up cry for a different kind of politics. And, ironically, it was the last president who had served in World War Two that was pulling at the heartstrings of millions of citizens wishing for something better.
It’s easy to contrast George H. W. Bush with the present occupant of the White House, but that would be to miss the point. Somewhere in the middle of the muck that is presently going on, people are still looking for a politics that is inclusive and that works. Our biggest challenges remain unaddressed because that spirit of compromise and respect so emblematic in Bush has been lost in a political system predicated upon ideology, money and, in some cases, stupidity. That is what we have. We need something different, more refined, more gracious. As Eliot Cohen, a former State Department official put it this week:
“Bush’s presidency is a reminder that what we’ve got is profoundly abnormal. The great danger is the normalization of character traits and behaviours that would have been an absolute abomination in the past.”
This isn’t about Donald Trump; it’s about our present democracy and the need to recapture it with a global leadership that believes in the dignity and endurance of the human spirit. It is about political systems worldwide that defy the efforts of noble-minded politicians and bureaucrats to make a difference in a world of powerful monied interests, partisan rigour, a frequently myopic citizenry, and a media world frequently interested more in the extreme than the resolute.
“I am rooting for you,” Bush had written in his letter left on the presidential desk for his opponent and successor Bill Clinton. This the very essence of effective political transition. He didn’t just write it, but went on to live it by striking up a friendship with Clinton that ultimately transcended politics and embraced humanitarianism.
The life and remembrance of George H. W. Bush is more about the importance of personal character that it is about political dominance. Politics is only as effective as the people that represent it, wield it, implement it. Its lack of capability at the moment around the world is merely evidence that contention has been placed ahead of compatibility and cooperation. Our democratic systems are now infused with animosity and good politicians must come together to overcome its deteriorating effects on our public lives. But that would require something different than what we have now.
Yesterday, George H. W. Bush returned to Washington with a fanfare he never received during his tenure in the White House. He had moved higher than politics and reminded people what good governance truly was and that your partisan beliefs don’t make you effective; your behaviour does. He returned, not to remind us of the past, but of the requirements and hope of the present and the future. Decency and personal respect aren’t throwbacks to a previous era, but the necessary tools required to guide us through a precarious future.
His life reminds us that decency, respect and humanity are the oil that makes democracy work. His death reminds us that without such things we will remain in a world of declining expectations. Bush’s story is put into a better context now and it is time we did the same with our politics.