It’s easy to speak well of Ge­orge H.W. Bush

Sentinel-Review (Woodstock) - - OPINION - AN­DREW CO­HEN An­drew Co­hen is a jour­nal­ist, pro­fes­sor and au­thor.

The death of Ge­orge H.W. Bush was an­nounced to friends, fam­ily and as­so­ciates by a one-word coded mes­sage flashed to their mo­bile de­vices. It was the sig­nal to set in mo­tion elab­o­rate ar­range­ments for the mourn­ing, fu­neral and burial of the 41st pres­i­dent of the United States.

This is the Amer­i­can way of death for its com­man­ders-in-chief. I learned of the long-es­tab­lished pro­to­col months ago from my friend and tele­vi­sion col­league, Mary Kate Cary, who was a speech­writer in Bush’s White House. She knew the drill. Death is not a sur­prise for some­one at 94, though Bush’s pass­ing (un­like that of his wife, Barbara, last spring) was not ex­pected im­mi­nently. The mes­sage sent the of­fi­cial ap­pa­ra­tus into high gear. I had not even fin­ished writ­ing a note of con­do­lence to Mary Kate — who revered Bush and re­mains close to his fam­ily — when, at 2 a.m., she sud­denly ap­peared on CNN.

The air­waves were soon filled with his­to­ri­ans and bi­og­ra­phers who have made the pres­i­dency a lit­er­ary cot­tage in­dus­try.

All brought hoary per­spec­tive to Bush’s long, con­se­quen­tial life. They com­peted with the usual talking heads, for­mer and cur­rent politi­cians and Bush con­tem­po­raries, one af­ter another, speak­ing over stock film footage and the stark ban­ner: Ge­orge H.W. Bush dead.

And so, the hum­ming ma­chin­ery of mem­ory be­gan to stamp out the post­hu­mous im­age of Ge­orge Her­bert Walker Bush as leader — mod­er­ate, pru­dent, coura­geous, mis­un­der­stood, un­ap­pre­ci­ated, piv­otal.

The li­on­iza­tion of the 41st pres­i­dent had be­gun. This is how a coun­try founded in re­ac­tion to roy­alty turns its lead­ers, in their af­ter­life, into Yankee kings.

It will con­tinue for days, the ven­er­a­tion of Ge­orge H.W. Bush. It will cul­mi­nate with his fu­neral Wed­nes­day in Wash­ing­ton Na­tional Cathe­dral and end Thurs­day with his burial at his pres­i­den­tial li­brary in Col­lege Sta­tion, Texas.

These rites of mourn­ing are re­li­ably rev­er­en­tial, largely un­crit­i­cal and un­fail­ingly sen­ti­men­tal.

The beauty of Ge­orge H.W. Bush is it is easy to speak well of him, as many have in re­cent days, with­out ar­ti­fice or af­fec­ta­tion. What comes through are his man­ners, his de­cency, his em­pa­thy, his hu­mil­ity, his loy­alty and his ca­pac­ity for friend­ship.

Less prom­i­nent is the cri­tique: How he em­braced the at­tack pol­i­tics of Lee At­wa­ter to de­stroy his op­po­nent, the in­ept Michael Dukakis, which in­au­gu­rated our era of scorchedearth pol­i­tics. How he nom­i­nated to the Supreme Court Clarence Thomas, a medi­ocrity tar­nished by cred­i­ble al­le­ga­tion of sex­ual mis­con­duct. How he failed to re­spond mean­ing­fully to the early 1990s re­ces­sion and to ar­tic­u­late “the vi­sion thing,” as he put it.

As a con­gress­man, Bush op­posed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a mon­u­men­tal mis­take that puts him for­ever on the wrong side of his­tory. Bush failed to win re-elec­tion to the pres­i­dency in 1992. In the United States, one-term pres­i­dents usu­ally carry a badge of fail­ure.

But not nec­es­sar­ily for all time. As Amer­i­cans en­no­ble pres­i­dents on their death, they also rein­vent them. His­tor­i­cally, they of­ten look bet­ter. Her­bert Hoover, for ex­am­ple, is long seen as a cal­lous and im­pas­sive in the face of the De­pres­sion.

Ken­neth Whyte, his gifted bi­og­ra­pher, re­minds us of his in­tel­li­gence as an en­gi­neer and his hu­man­i­tar­i­an­ism, feed­ing a starv­ing Europe af­ter the First World War. Other failed pres­i­dents of the 20th cen­tury — Ger­ald Ford, for ex­am­ple — are al­most al­ways viewed more favourably by his­tory. It is Amer­i­can sen­ti­men­tal­ity, folksy and op­ti­mistic, and it is al­ready at work to­day.

In life, Ge­orge H.W. Bush was a good man. In death, he is a great man.

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