Bush’s funeral reminds us of the values the greatest generation bestowed on U.S., William Mckenzie says
George H.W. Bush’s memorial services were not only a stirring tribute to a good and decent man. They also were effectively the last public memorial for a generation of Americans who served the nation from perilous battlefields to hometown communities to even the highest office in the land.
This is said with no disrespect to the services that will mark the passing of surviving members of that generation like Jimmy Carter and Bob Dole. But the norms of a generation fast receding from our lives were captured almost perfectly in the ceremonies for Bush. And for good reason. George and Barbara Bush embodied a generation’s love of country, community and, yes, service, that familiar but appropriate word that often is used to describe this devoted pair.
As with the Bushes, many in their generation gave back in little and big ways, from attending untold PTA meetings and Little League games, to building a roaring economy, to taking care of their hometowns. As with the Bushes, these were not perfect people who made nothing but perfect decisions. As a generation, too many took too long to recognize the value that racial diversity brings to a nation that prides itself on e pluribus unum.
Still, the one-two punch of the Great Depression and World War II made them realize that forces beyond their control were capable of humbling even the bravest and wealthiest. Perhaps that is why, in a pre-kardashian world, modesty was seen as a virtue. Bragging was certainly not extolled in the post-world War II household my brother and I grew up in. Woe unto ye if you were caught puffing your chest.
The norms of this generation were on display even down to the farewell hymn Bush selected for his Houston funeral service: “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” I almost jumped out of my seat in hearing that one from a pre-politically correct world.
Before my father died five years ago at age 90, he had asked if it could be sung at his funeral. I told him I would check, although I wasn’t sure our mainline Protestant denomination still had that one on the playlist. Sure enough, when I asked the minister, he smiled and said that was no longer in the hymn book but, with a twinkle in his eye, he added, we sure will sing it. The hymn may sound a bit militant today, but it was part of their ethic of get up and get going.
Moments like this week can make the
Bush-era generation seem almost mythic. It was not, and it would be a mistake for Americans in today’s generations to think the norms the Bushes represented — civility, modesty and fair play; character over pedigree, as George W. Bush put it — are not available to them.
I am not thinking here about baby boomers. We are not through yet, but we have largely had our moment and are the next generation to head out the door. Instead, I am thinking about Americans under 35 or 40, to whom the future will indeed belong.
The fact is, it doesn’t take a bone-jarring depression or, God forbid, a world war to put “kinder and gentler” into use. Or to extol others over self, at least some of the time. Or to serve through love, not just to pad your résumé.
Putting these values into action will take some contrarianism. The
New York Times recently ran an op-ed about how we are all in sales now. In our world of self-promotion, “branding” oneself is becoming the way to market your skills. In order to advance, we are under constant pressure to sell ourselves, author Ruth Whippman wrote.
Perhaps some of this shift is about empowering individuals over large, monolithic institutions. If so, that is not all bad. But an atomized way of life ultimately undermines the sense of community that our democracy depends upon.
Reassuringly, some young people participating in a set of interviews on leadership for the Bush Institute have emphasized the importance of leaders showing empathy and listening to others. Those are akin to the premium many in their grandparents’ generation put on modesty and civility.
May they now run with the lessons in character that have been shown them. The lessons are eternal in nature and universal to all generations. Thank God we were reminded of them this week.
Members of the Magnolia fire department hoisted a flag along the route of the train that carried President Bush’s remains from Spring to College Station on Thursday.