Most of the government is shut down today, in an homage to the late President George H.W. Bush. Americans have been encouraged to reflect on his life. So I will. But first, a keen observation by another that mirrors my own thoughts:
It is in no way to insult George H. W. Bush — or any other president, for that matter — to ask whether the retooling of their calendars is an appropriate way for the people of a republic to respond to the death of an elected representative. Tomorrow, the press reports, is to be a “day of mourning” — a day on which the stock market will be closed, on which the federal government will shut down, on which the House of Representatives will begin a week-long break, on which various universities will cancel classes, on which the Postal Service will halt deliveries, on which the Supreme Court will adjourn, and on which major American newspapers will postpone events that they had previously planned to hold. Across the U.S., flags will be flown at half-staff for a month.
Why? Irrespective of whether he was a great man or a poor one, George H. W. Bush was a public employee. He was not a king. He was not a pope. He did not found or save or design the republic. To shut down our civil society for a day in order to mark his peaceful passing is to invert the appropriate relationship between the citizen and the state, and to take yet another step toward the fetishization of an executive branch whose role is supposed to be more bureaucratic than spiritual, but that has come of late to resemble Caesar more than to resemble Coolidge.
Well said, Mr. Cooke. I’d also add that the current practice of naming $1 billion warships after presidents has the same effect. (Why not return to naming carriers after famous battles/events in U.S. history? Honor the many who fought – not the ones who gave the orders from a fortress in D.C.) Presidents do have an impact on the course of history, and their lives are worth remembering and examining. But in a Republic, they should not be revered.
So what about Mr. Bush? Politics aside, I submit his greatest legacy and example is in the 73-year marriage he shared with Barbara — the longest marriage of any president. This marriage survived the death of a child, issues of depression, and the rough and tumble of political life. Our nation could use many more such examples of love and commitment.
I have mixed feelings about Bush’s presidential legacy. Clearly he had a successful foreign policy run. Desert Storm restored a large measure of faith in the U.S. armed forces that had been missing since Vietnam. Almost 30 years later, though, one could argue America fell inappropriately in love with its high-tech military, to the point of misapplying it to problems that are not intrinsically solvable by force of arms. Where Bush’s legacy is likely greatest, though, is in his handling of the end of the Cold War. As the Soviet Union collapsed, and with it the Warsaw Pact empire, it was by no means a foregone conclusion the great transition would be a peaceful one. The Bush administration navigated a failed coup against Gorbachev, Yeltsin’s populist revolt, and the thorny question of what to do with Germany after the Berlin Wall fell. It was not an amateur’s hour, and the nation was fortunate to have at the helm what might have been one of the best-prepared presidents for such a time.
Despite such impactful success on the international stage, Bush was unable to translate the political capital from it to impact issues at home. Exiting the Gulf War with an approval rating of almost 90 percent, within months his inability to articulate “the vision thing” as he put it, cost him support in an America facing economic turmoil and uncertainty in a post-Cold War world. As the 1992 election cycle began, six words came back to haunt him: “Read my lips. No new taxes.” Only 18 months into his presidency, Bush relented on that pledge as part of a deal that was supposed to include spending cuts. Predictably, the taxes rose. The cuts never came. Once again, the Democrats’ Lucy had yanked the ball away from Charlie Brown, and Bush looked foolish for having trusted his political opponents, who gloated over the misstep. Coupled with his reference to a “new world order” in the wake of the Cold War, the tax issue cost him dearly among fiscal conservatives and those wary of international entanglements. This opened the door for the challenge by Ross Perot, who pulled enough support away (including, I regret to say, my own vote) that Bill Clinton was elected president. Comparing the two men’s resumes, it’s laughable to think America would reject Bush in favor of “the man from Hope, Arkansas.” But as I’ve pointed out on this blog, critical decisions are made more often on emotion than reason, and in this case Clinton connected with people in a way Bush did not. And so it was that two of the most conniving political creatures America has ever produced — Bubba Bill and Her Hillariness — entered the White House, beginning a three-decade-long spree of influence peddling and assorted other nefarious activities.
It’s worth noting, however, the letter Bubba found in the Oval Office from his predecessor:
Jan 20, 1993
When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.
I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.
There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.
You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.
Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.
Good luck — George
That last line should serve as a model in our electoral system, which has devolved into political total war against those who disagree. Since that transition in 1993, both Republicans and Democrats have been guilty of wanting to see a president from “the other side” fail, seeking political opportunity regardless the cost to the country. We need to relearn the ability to stand firmly on principle while still extending an open hand to those of good will and honorable intentions.
We also need to regain the discernment to tell those honorable opponents from charlatans and snake oil salesmen.
Politically, I’m even less of a Bush family fan than I was in 1992, in large part due to what I believe to have been wrongheaded policy by Bush the Younger after 9/11. Despite all that, I offer my humble condolences to that family on the passing of a man who, regardless any political faults, was clearly a devoted husband and father. May our nation be blessed to have many more such men. And may we continue to remember that even when they occupy the highest office in the land, they are still just that: men.