A fi­nal salute to a good, de­cent man


We all woke up Satur­day morn­ing to the news that Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H. W. Bush had died, the man many of us called “Papa Bush” to dif­fer­en­ti­ate him from his son. And whereas the son is now, with the gen­tling buf­fer of time, be­com­ing less po­lar­iz­ing and more re­lat­able at a per­sonal level, the fa­ther has al­ways been a char­ac­ter of hu­man di­men­sion.

Pol­i­tics might have di­vided us, and par­ti­sans might have crit­i­cized his poli­cies and legacy, but vir­tu­ally no one hated Ge­orge Her­bert Walker Bush. The clos­est we got to neg­a­tiv­ity was the sar­cas­tic-yet-en­dear­ing car­i­ca­ture per­fected by Dana Car­vey in the old “Satur­day Night Live” days where “read my lips” was a punch­line.

Our 41st pres­i­dent was al­ways a good man, and even though we can’t ig­nore the con­tro­ver­sies of his pres­i­dency, which seem ridicu­lously tame in com­par­i­son to the cat­a­clysms of those in his suc­ces­sors’ ad­min­is­tra­tions (in­clud­ing his el­dest son’s), his years in pub­lic ser­vice seem be­nign in ret­ro­spect.

But that’s not what we were think­ing of when we turned on the tele­vi­sion and saw that hand­some face with the oblig­a­tory epi­taphs and eu­lo­gies scrolling be­neath it, and heard the lauda­tory com­ments from pun­dits and politi­cians. We weren’t think­ing about Desert Storm, or Dan Quayle, or bro­ken economies or the fail­ure to cap­ture Sad­dam.

At least I wasn’t, and from what I saw on the so­cial me­dia ac­counts of friends, nei­ther were most of us. We were think­ing about the fact that with the ex­tin­guish­ing of this hu­man point of light, brighter than the thou­sands that he of­ten ref­er­enced in speeches, we had lost one of the last good men of a gen­er­a­tion that is now fad­ing into the mists of time.

There is a mythol­ogy of the “Great­est Gen­er­a­tion,” pop­u­lar­ized by Tom Brokaw and David McCul­lough and other cul­tural and crit­i­cal his­to­ri­ans who told us the sto­ries of those who came of age dur­ing the De­pres­sion and World War II. Very few of those men and women are still alive, and so when one of the re­main­ing flesh and blood ex­am­ples of that gen­er­a­tion leaves the Earth, we are forced to re­flect on what that pass­ing means. At a gran­u­lar, per­sonal level, the death of a beloved grand­fa­ther or un­cle means the loss of an im­por­tant fam­ily mem­ber, of his laugh­ter, of her sto­ries, of their ded­i­cated spir­its and the mem­o­ries that only they could pass along.

But when a man like Ge­orge H.W. Bush passes on, the coun­try is the “fam­ily,” and we are faced with the sad prospect that some­thing truly spe­cial has been taken away from all of us, even those of us who never had the joy of speak­ing with, meet­ing, or even get­ting a hand-writ­ten let­ter from a man so fa­mous for send­ing them to un­sus­pect­ing ad­mir­ers.

The rea­son that the death of some­one like Pres­i­dent Bush touches a deeply set, im­per­cep­ti­ble chord in us is that we sense his good­ness and hu­man­ity, and we mourn the loss of that in the pub­lic square. We mourn a dig­nity that is all but gone, we mourn a gen­tle­ness that has been re­placed by blus­ter and bravado and brash­ness, we un­der­stand that pol­i­tics will never again be a game played by gentle­men or gen­tle women. We grieve the man, but we also grieve his era and his class, his type and his im­print.

I spend a lot of time with my nephew talk­ing about di­nosaurs and crea­tures that are now ex­tinct, and I can’t get be­yond the thought that there is some hu­man par­al­lel when talk­ing about the peo­ple who shared a lin­eage and a time frame with Ge­orge H.W. Bush. There aren’t many like him left, and his pass­ing leaves a hole that won’t be filled by any­one again.

In the end, the thing that made me cry was the fact that this good man was fi­nally with his beloved wife and daugh­ter Robin, the child he and Bar­bara lost to Leukemia at the age of three. My tears were the kind that spring from a happy cathar­sis, and the knowl­edge that the man who had spent a life­time miss­ing his lit­tle girl would be able to hold her again.

That’s an un­usual thought to have about a for­mer pres­i­dent the morn­ing af­ter his death. And that’s why that death is so achingly sad.

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