Man of in­tegrity called us to be our best

The Star Democrat - - OPINION - GE­ORGIE ANNE GEYER Ge­orgie Anne Geyer has been a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent and com­men­ta­tor on in­ter­na­tional af­fairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at [email protected]

WASH­ING­TON — My most spe­cial in­sight into the spirit of Ge­orge H.W. Bush came in the early 1980s in an in­ter­view ar­ranged aboard a plane he was tak­ing be­tween D.C. and Char­lotte. He was still vice pres­i­dent then, but would soon be run­ning for pres­i­dent.

At one point, I asked him about the mes­sage he would want to send dur­ing the com­ing cam­paign. I re­mem­ber to this day how he paused, looked thought­ful, and then seemed per­plexed.

“I re­ally don’t know, Ge­orgie Anne,” he fi­nally said. “I know I need a ‘bumper sticker’ to ex­plain my cam­paign, but I don’t have it.” He looked hope­fully at me! “Can you think of a bumper sticker?” he asked.

At the time, I thought this un­usual ex­change be­tween a young cor­re­spon­dent and one of the most ex­pe­ri­enced lead­ers in the na­tion to be both cute and ab­so­lutely amaz­ing. But not a sin­gle bumper sticker danced into my head.

Now, with the week­long com­mem­o­ra­tion of this re­mark­able man, I re­al­ize that a great part of the rea­son the na­tion is — be­lat­edly — ap­pre­ci­at­ing his abun­dant abil­i­ties and ac­com­plish­ments is sim­ply that he never thought of pol­i­tics, or life or any­thing else, in terms of bumper stick­ers.

Not for Mrs. Bush’s son, those dumb, prob­a­bly vul­gar, in­sipid words that would ride around on the rumps of dirty cars. Not for him, the world that was too soon to come: that of noth­ing-barred talk ra­dio, of the mes­mer­iz­ing pro­pa­ganda of ca­ble news, or of the ev­ery­day low­er­ing of the stan­dards and prin­ci­ples that truly made this coun­try great.

No. Ge­orge Her­bert Walker Bush did it his way. He seemed in­stinc­tively to un­der­stand the com­plex­i­ties of the world and the lead­ers he was deal­ing with. In many ways, he was a di­rect son of the Found­ing Fa­thers — from his beau­ti­ful man­ners in let­ting the Soviet Union qui­etly im­plode with­out in­ter­fer­ing in it, to his com­mon sense about the lim­its of in­ter­ven­tion­ism over­seas (as with the Gulf War), to his view of the world as a place of joy, ex­plo­ration and hu­mor.

Af­ter he had be­come pres­i­dent (and with­out the bumper sticker, I should add), I was in­vited with three other jour­nal­ists to the Oval Of­fice for lunch. At one point, the Los An­ge­les Times cor­re­spon­dent said to Bush, “You know, Mr. Pres­i­dent, when you were vice pres­i­dent, I used to come to see you, and you were al­ways so nice — but you didn’t ever say any­thing!”

The pres­i­dent smiled dev­il­ishly. “Yes, Jack,” he an­swered, grin­ning broadly, “I did that for eight years — and HERE I AM!”

It seems to have slipped peo­ple’s minds this week that Pres­i­dent Bush was widely crit­i­cized, made fun of and even re­viled dur­ing his four years as pres­i­dent. He was too preppy, too pa­tri­cian, too pa­tri­ar­chal, too pru­dent, too priv­i­leged, par­tic­u­larly in the ple­beian age that was just then itching to be born. He was, af­ter all, the last pres­i­dent of the East­ern Es­tab­lish­ment, of old and ex­pe­ri­enced fam­i­lies whose aura had in­flu­enced the na­tion for so many decades. And he was also, by the way, the last Amer­i­can pres­i­dent to ac­tu­ally win a war.

But for us, it has been down­hill from there. Bush handed the end of the Cold War to Bill Clin­ton, who thanked him by go­ing into the cup­board with Mon­ica Lewin­sky. An an­gry part of the coun­try gave the na­tion to Don­ald J. Trump to “get even,” and he has re­paid it with his mob­ster’s man­ners, which may well be chang­ing our his­tor­i­cal stan­dards of eth­i­cal val­ues.

The man we bury this week called us to our best; now, we are called to our worst.

And this is cu­ri­ous, be­cause we had thought that the new mer­i­toc­racy — those who rise on merit and univer­sity ed­u­ca­tions — would im­prove the na­tion. But these new “elites” think of them­selves in­stead of in­sti­tu­tions, wor­ship diver­sity as a goal in­stead of in­di­vid­ual ex­cel­lence, and tend to be peo­ple, as New York Times columnist David Brooks puts it, who have ex­is­ten­tially lost “the self as the seat of the soul.”

Can any of this be changed back? Can we some­how re-cre­ate a new vari­ant of those old cul­tural man­ners, rein­ject them into so­ci­ety? Is there room for a new lead­er­ship class that prizes man­ners and val­ues again? Do enough of us re­ally want that?

Writ­ing in The Wash­ing­ton Post of the man who had be­come a close friend, Bill Clin­ton com­mented that it would be “easy to sigh and say Ge­orge H.W. Bush be­longed to an era that is gone,” but “I know what he would say: ‘Non­sense. It’s your duty to get that Amer­ica back.’”

Per­haps dur­ing this week of mourn­ing, this fine man will start us on that cru­cial jour­ney back to those old du­ties.

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