From 41 to 45 (and back again)

The Prince George Citizen - - Opinion - — Ed­i­tor-in-chief Neil God­bout

Since his death last Fri­day, the trib­utes have poured in from around the world for Ge­orge Her­bert Walker Bush, who will be laid to rest to­day in Texas, next to Bar­bara, his wife of 73 years, who died in April and their three-year-old daugh­ter who died of leukemia in 1953. For­mer prime min­is­ter Brian Mul­roney de­liv­ered one of the eu­lo­gies dur­ing Bush’s fu­neral Wed­nes­day, break­ing down at one point while speak­ing about a friend he clearly looked up to, both as a man and as a leader.

The ac­com­plish­ments and pub­lic ser­vice of the 41st pres­i­dent of the United States, both be­fore he oc­cu­pied the Oval Of­fice – dec­o­rated vet­eran, CIA di­rec­tor, con­gress­man, vice pres­i­dent – and af­ter­wards – rais­ing more than $1 bil­lion for var­i­ous char­i­ties, parachut­ing for his 90th birth­day – are leg­endary.

Even his lesser-known acts speak to a man de­voted to help­ing oth­ers, even at his own ex­pense, as one Wash­ing­ton Post story noted. The 1992 White House Christ­mas party looked to be a grim af­fair, with Bush hav­ing lost his re­elec­tion bid to Bill Clin­ton the month be­fore and a de­mor­al­ized staff pack­ing up their be­long­ings be­fore Clin­ton’s in­au­gu­ra­tion in Jan­uary. Bush knew he needed to do some­thing to lift ev­ery­one’s spir­its, so he swal­lowed his pride and called Dana Car­vey, the Satur­day Night Live per­former who had im­per­son­ated Bush to dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect for years, and asked the co­me­dian to ap­pear as Bush at the party.

When the band struck up Hail To The Chief, Car­vey marched into the room in Bush char­ac­ter, greeted by howls of laugh­ter from White House staffers. While Car­vey took to the podium to wave his hands around, throw out some of those fa­mous one-lin­ers like “wouldn’t be pru­dent at this junc­ture” and in­form the em­ploy­ees he had called down to the Se­cret Ser­vice as the pres­i­dent the night be­fore, say­ing “feel like go­ing jog­ging tonight. In the nude... fully un­clothed,” Bush and his wife qui­etly en­tered the room and stood in the back, laugh­ing with ev­ery­one else.

Be­fore invit­ing Bush up, Car­vey let ev­ery­one in on what his Bush im­per­son­ation was based on: “you start with Mr. Rogers, then you add a lit­tle John Wayne.”

In other words, a kind, gen­tle soul with a steel back­bone who stands up for what is right.

In the past week, many oth­ers, not only those on both sides of the po­lit­i­cal di­vide, but from White House re­porters who cov­ered the Bush pres­i­dency, have cited sim­i­lar qual­i­ties.

Bush’s fu­neral was much like John McCain’s ear­lier this fall – a som­bre af­fair filled with many laughs and fond mem­o­ries of a de­cent man de­voted to fam­ily and coun­try.

The stark con­trast be­tween Bush and the cur­rent Oval Of­fice oc­cu­pant – the 45th pres­i­dent of the United States – is clear, yet the com­par­i­son should be greeted with op­ti­mism, rather than sad­ness at what’s been lost.

Two things are im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous. First, Trump – the man and the pres­i­dent – is a his­tor­i­cal odd­ity while Bush – the man and the pres­i­dent – is the his­tor­i­cal norm. There have been bad Amer­i­can pres­i­dents be­fore but they are vastly out­num­bered by the good ones from both po­lit­i­cal par­ties. Trump was not asked to speak at Bush’s fu­neral Wed­nes­day. It’s more than mere co­in­ci­dence that the last sit­ting Amer­i­can pres­i­dent not in­vited to eu­lo­gize a for­mer pres­i­dent upon his pass­ing, re­gard­less of their po­lit­i­cal stripes, was Richard Nixon, the last truly aw­ful pres­i­dent.

Se­cond, bad pres­i­dents make Amer­i­cans re­al­ize they de­serve bet­ter. In 1932, they fled from Her­bert Hoover’s cold re­sponse to the De­pres­sion and flocked to Franklin Roo­sevelt, a man who pro­jected both re­silience and strength from his wheel­chair and was ar­guably the great­est pres­i­dent of the 20th cen­tury. Af­ter the law­less­ness of Nixon, Amer­i­can em­braced the de­cency of Ger­ald Ford, the com­mon man in Jimmy Carter and then the bound­less op­ti­mism of Ronald Rea­gan.

It was Rea­gan and Bush that saved the Re­pub­li­can Party in Nixon’s wake. Bush was so loved and re­spected that Rea­gan chose him as his run­ning mate against Carter in the 1980 elec­tion, de­spite the fact Bush chal­lenged Rea­gan in a hard-fought bat­tle for the Re­pub­li­can nom­i­na­tion. In mod­ern terms, the equiv­a­lent would have been Trump want­ing to mend fences with the Re­pub­li­can Party by pick­ing Marco Ru­bio or Ted Cruz to be his vice pres­i­dent, in­stead of the ob­se­quiously unc­tu­ous Mike Pence.

Like Nixon, Trump is now in a le­gal quag­mire from which there is no es­cape via an­gry tweets, boast­ful ral­lies or the fir­ing of long­time sup­port­ers. Nixon also tried the “you’re fired” route and it still didn’t save his pres­i­dency or his legacy. His­tory ap­pears to be re­peat­ing it­self.

As re­cently as last year, Trump mocked Bush’s fa­mous “thou­sand points of light” phrase to de­scribe the will­ing­ness of Amer­i­cans to give of their time, en­ergy and money in the sup­port of one an­other. It is Bush’s spirit, not Trump’s, that in­spires to­day’s and to­mor­row’s cit­i­zens, in the United States and around the world, to­wards work­ing to­wards a a greater good for ev­ery­one, not just the peo­ple who say they like you.

The choice is plain: be one of the points of light or be part of the dark­ness.

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