George Herbert Walker Bush was elected president in 1988, and the 30-year gap between his victory and his funeral Wednesday means many Americans don’t remember his single presidential term well. Some were not yet born or were too young to pay much heed. Others had not yet reached our shores.
And even among those who lived through Bush’s time in the White House and remember it well, there remain sharp political divides over the 41st president’s leadership.
But in the messages from eulogists and the unifying and nonpartisan camaraderie of those at Bush’s funeral Wednesday at the Washington National Cathedral, there were unique pageantry, protocols and history. And at a time when our nation’s body politic is torn asunder by rage and disunity, it was a reminder that we have a common tradition.
When the frail former senator and fellow World War II veteran Bob Dole delivered a stirring, standing salute to Bush’s casket on Tuesday, his action cemented a feeling that the nation was saying goodbye to more than a former president. We mourn the passing of a generation of men and women who, while imperfect, endured fantastic hardship to safeguard and build the world we enjoy. We fear that the ethos they championed, of courage and generosity and humility and community, is disappearing, too.
But Bush, his eulogists said, felt no such pessimism for the future of this nation. They told the story of a student and a warrior, a friend and a family man, an athlete and prankster, and a supporting actor on the national political scene who captured the lead role, only to lose it. Bush’s eldest son, former President George W. Bush, recalled an optimistic, loving father who “showed me what it means to be a president who serves with integrity, leads with courage and acts with love in his heart for the citizens of our country.”
But around the nation’s dinner tables and television sets, the rush of nostalgia for a familiar public figure whose last decades were lived so gently was tempered by arguments over his policies. The campaign ads that inflamed racial fears. The broken promise of “no new taxes.” The decision to deploy military force against Saddam Hussein in support of Kuwait, and then leave Hussein in place in Iraq. The full-on commitment to Americans with disabilities, and the less forceful response to the AIDS epidemic.
Bush was flawed and human, and the presidency is an extraordinarily difficult job. The celebration of his service and the criticism of his failures are equal parts of our national tradition.
The United States is far from the only free nation in the world, and it is not the only land where four former leaders and a current one, representing vastly different political and personal beliefs, could gather in solidarity to send off another leader. But it is the nation where the idea of democratically elected leaders with opposing views replacing each other peacefully was invented and embraced. Every other nation that celebrates such a tradition is trying to live up to the example that was on display at Bush’s funeral.
So, increasingly, is the United States.— The editorial board