President George H.W. Bush, who died last week at age 94, drew universal praise — not for his policies, on which many can and do disagree — but for his basic decency, humility and sense of service before self, about which there was unanimous agreement on this kinder, gentler approach to a rough-and-tumble Washington world.
The moment had some journalists donning rose-colored glasses, but it is hard to blame them given the current view of and from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
The heartfelt praise from both sides of the aisle was an implicit, and occasionally explicit, “criticism by contrast” of the White House’s current occupant, who has given new and troubling meaning to the term “presidential.”
Bush was praised for being able to entertain criticism with equanimity and take responsibility without deflection.
Presidential biographer Jon Meacham said at the Bush state funeral last week that one of the late president’s basic tenets was, “Don’t blame people.” The president was, to put it another way, “not gonna do it.”
Those who refuse to acknowledge their mistakes are doomed to repeat them, and when it is the president who is making those mistakes, the consequences of repetition can be dire.
Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke of Bush’s fundamental decency, humility and sense of duty. How we live, said Ryan, is as important as what we achieve.
And how Bush lived was as though his political opponents were not his enemies. He had as sharp elbows as anyone in a tough campaign, but there were low blows he refused to deliver, and he was reluctant, as many said last week, to talk about himself or his achievements.
“In every chapter of his life, in war and in peace, in places high and low, George H.W. Bush could be found heroically serving others, with competence, goodness, grace and decency,” said National Association of Broadcasters president and CEO Gordon Smith. “It has long been said that greatness is revealed in service to others. By that standard, President Bush was truly great.”
A Leader Who Showed Civility
“I first met George Bush when he was being sworn in as director of Central Intelligence by President Ford, in 1976, and I had the honor of writing the president’s speech,” Patrick Butler, president of America’s Public Television Stations, said. “From that day to this, I have admired President Bush not only for the good grace and civility for which he is being appropriately praised, but also for the extraordinary skill he brought to the world’s most important office at the world’s most sensitive time.”
“Over his long life and distinguished career, President Bush was a leader who placed the long-term interests of America over everything else, a patriot whose duty and service were a way of life,” said American Cable Association president and CEO Matt Polka.
Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.) talked not last week of a Republican president, but of a man who stood up for Americans with disabilities. In an email, Coelho quoted President Bush on his signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act a year after the Berlin Wall fell.
“‘Last year, we celebrated a victory of international freedom. Even the strongest person couldn’t scale the Berlin Wall to gain the elusive promise of independence that lay just beyond. And so, together we rejoiced when that barrier fell.
“‘Now I sign legislation, which takes a sledgehammer to another wall, one that has for too many generations separated Americans with disabilities from the freedom they could glimpse, but not grasp. Once again, we rejoice as this barrier falls, for claiming together we will not accept, we will not excuse, we will not tolerate discrimination in America.’”
“President Bush worked selflessly throughout his long life to bring about a world of justice and lasting peace,” President Donald Trump said last week in officially informing Congress of Bush’s death. “With his passing, we mark one of the last pages of a defining chapter in American history.”
We fear Trump is too eager to close the book on the chapter on “Service before Self.”
FCC chairman Ajit Pai recalled last week: “President Bush once said, ‘America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of this nation and gentler the face of this world.’
Former senator and Bush friend Alan Simpson said of the late president last week: “Those who follow the high road of humility are not bothered by heavy traffic, and offered this key character trait: He never hated anyone. Hate erodes the container it’s carried in.”
For President Bush, there was clearly method in his mildness, which Dana Carvey once characterized, in explaining how he prepared for his iconic impression, as Mr. Rogers trying to be John Wayne.
Politics aside, as they were last week, the tributes to Bush 41 should be required reading for Trump 45 as instructive examples of “presidential.”