The National Day of Mourning opened up gray, overcast and cold in the nation’s capital. There was a hint of snow in the air as the nation laid to rest George Herbert Walker Bush, our 41st president.
Equally praised and criticized as the last great moderate in American politics, in his passing the nation seems to be trying to come to grips with the divisive and disgusting nature of our current political environment.
During his lifetime, Bush courted criticism from the right when he raised taxes and from the left partly because during his tenure at the CIA he presided over “Operation Condor” that aided right-wing military dictatorships in Central America, which eventually led to thousands of deaths.
Bush, in short, was tough to pigeonhole. When he ran for president as a member of the now defunct centrist faction of the Republican Party he famously called Ronald Reagan’s idea of massive tax cuts “voodoo economics.”
He had a sense of duty. After Reagan got shot, Vice President Bush flew back to Washington, D.C. and was encouraged by Reagan’s aides to fly directly to the White House by helicopter as an image of the government still functioning normally. Bush declined saying, “Only the President lands on the South Lawn.” This made quite the impression on Reagan.
After that some called Bush obsequious and said he put his manhood in a “blind trust” when he became vice president. Others later called him a “mean spirited wimp.” I cannot abide by that. The man was a Navy aviator in World War II. He had stones.
His wasn’t a life free from scandal. During the infamous Iran-Contra affair he declared he was out of the loop, though it was reported his diaries at the time stated, “I’m one of the few people that know fully the details,” of what occurred. The independent counsel’s final report on Iran-Contra noted, “The criminal investigation of Bush was regrettably incomplete,” but in the Nicarauga V. United States case in the International Court of Justice, it was ruled the U.S. had violated international law by supporting the Nicaraguan Contras in their rebellion against the Nicaraguan government.
He could inspire. His “thousand points of light,” speech, while laughed at and mocked by comedians and even Neil Young in his song “Rocking in the Free World,” is now seen as a middle-ground appeal to civility and what is best in America. Bush, of course was no middle-of-the road Republican. He advocated prayer in school, opposed abortion and endorsed capital punishment and gun rights. Okay, maybe compared to today’s GOP, he is middle of the road, but he wasn’t seen that way at the time of his election as president.
His race against Michael Dukakis was seen at the time as extremely dirty, paving the way for today’s fractious and volatile politics where there are no boundaries. The man who subscribed to decorum as Reagan’s vice president, subjugating his own desires, conveniently and demonstrably sidelined such decorum in pursuit of the presidency.
But Bush’s no-holds-barred race to the top brought with it the seeds of his own decline. In the same speech in which he talked about a thousand points of light he also famously said “Read my lips. No New Taxes.” He reneged on that promise and it was seen as one of the reasons he lost his bid for re-election.
My own interactions with the former president reflect a similar dichotomy of experiences. I first ran into him at a news conference in San Antonio close to the end of his only term. Seven presidents from the Americas were gathered to talk about the War on Drugs, and the ground rules dictated each president would only take two questions. By the time Bush called on me to ask a question, the travel pool had asked Bush two questions – but they were about Pat Buchanan catching up with him in the New Hampshire primary polls. That put him in a foul mood and when I insisted on asking him a question about the war on drugs, he declined and told me to sit down, saying he was not used to being treated “this way.”
I welcomed him to San Antonio and proceeded to ask the president of Mexico, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and urged Bush to answer it as well.
Thus, my first impression of Bush wasn’t a favorable one. Forgive me, but I did get over it. I ran into him but two other times before his death. Both times he was cordial, indeed, genteel and friendly.
I came to admire him again for his service and sacrifice. I was able to briefly ask about his service aboard an aircraft carrier. He was the last WWII veteran to serve as president and being a private pilot, I was curious about the experience of landing a high performance aircraft on a very short runway in the middle of the ocean. I was told such an experience was akin to a “controlled crash.” He nodded. “Exhilarating. Frightening,” he said.
There will be many words written about the former president upon his death and I guarantee they will be written by people who knew Bush fair better than I. Some of these words will be exhilarating. Some will be frightening.
He was a bit of a Rorschach test for people. People see in him what they want to see. Me? He was complex. He had a set of beliefs. He did some things well and some things poorly. He did some ethically questionable things and he did some things for which he should be cheered. I am not in a position to judge the man. None of us are. I do not doubt that he did the best he thought he could do with the tools at his disposal. Nor do I doubt that he had the best of intentions and at his core was a kind man.
In the end, his final words were of love to his oldest son. As a father and a son, it brings tears to my eyes and makes me appreciate how fallible, how fragile and how fleeting life is and how much we all need to appreciate those around us we love.
Or as Bush’s son, George W. Bush said in eulogizing his father, “We cannot hope only to leave our children a bigger car, a bigger bank account. We must hope to give them a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend, a loving parent, a citizen who leaves his home, his neighborhood and town better than he found it.”