President Trump and the First Lady’s graceful tribute to the late George H. W. Bush underscored, a little awkwardly, one reason for the tone and fragrance of all the obituary tributes we’re reading.
The Trumps praised — with unimpeachable dignity — Bush’s “essential authenticity, disarming wit, and unwavering commitment to faith, family, and country,” together with his “sound judgment and unflappable leadership.” Which string of attributes strikes many, I’m sure, as precisely the stuff some future president won’t be saying about Trump. As if Trump — who knows exactly who he is and isn’t — really cared!
The late George Herbert Walker Bush was indeed a man of many excellences. That the personal variety excite more praise than the political ones shows us a thing or two about national leadership: its demands and rigors.
Not always but often enough to give us considerable pause, important national leaders are decidedly — well, maybe not weird or crazy but certainly non-normal. Think of FDR. Think of Churchill and De Gaulle. Think of LBJ and Bill Clinton. They aren’t like us, and we’re not like them — a fact that illuminates to some degree the rise and pugnacious durability of Donald Trump. You might not want to spend a lot of face time with him, but you might well want him to straighten out some things in need of straightening: which task, assuming he agreed with you, or saw value in your analysis, he’d be happy to take on, claiming full credit all the way.
The near-normality of “H. W.” — by presidential standards — was both his chief feature and failing. He was, I believe, as nice and gentlemanly and kind and decent as tributes make him out to have been. He hand-wrote thank-you notes. Who in politics does that anymore?
And yet, as national leader, Bush lacked — what to call it? Ruthlessness? Maybe something like that. A ruthlessness stemming from burning belief that thus-and-so had to be done for the national good, and was damn well — pardon my French — going to get done.
His good intentions and high motives seemed less part of a vision — a picture of how things should be — than of a strategy for operating in a good-neighborish, almost Rockwellian, environment. Of tragedy and necessity he seemed to have only a limited grasp. You can’t but wonder how much world history he studied at Yale, and with how much attention.
Bush was mocked for an offhand reference he once made to “the vision thing” — a semi-dismissal purportedly showing his indifference to any governing philosophy beyond, commendably enough, integrity and efficiency. In other words, how come he wanted to be president? Was that all there was to it — paying the bills and keeping the lights on?
There came a moment in our tumultuous time when, soured on feckless, foggy, self-interested politicians, the voters — roughly half of them anyway — decided it was time for a vision with flesh and teeth, namely, the vision of Donald Trump: no hand-written thank-you’s but lots and lots and lots of action. And rhetoric: nothing like they teach at Yale, or used to, but coarse and unsparing. Unsurprisingly, George H. W. Bush is reported to have voted in 2016 for Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton! Well…
De mortuis nil nisi bonum — of the dead say nothing but good — is the rule of thumb in the obituary trade. Believe me when I submit that George Herbert Walker Bush deserves, not in accordance with ancient maxims but rather on account of personal merit, the highest, most fervent praises.
What history — whatever that may mean — will say about the deportment and records of the gentleman-in-politics and the ruffian-in-politics is more than we senior citizens can expect to find out. I will content myself with a guess: It is that we need both types to attempt different things in different ways at different times. Nor can we expect from either type the fulfillment of every human expectation and need. “O put not your trust in princes” is the counsel of the Psalmist. I’ve never heard better.
William Murchison is writing a book on moral restoration in the 21st century.
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