Before he delivered his funeral eulogy to George Herbert Walker Bush, his biographer Jon Meacham read it to the 41st president. Mr. Bush’s response was characteristic: “That’s a lot about me, Jon.”
The past is another country, and that’s why, from time to time, we should visit it. Travel broadens the mind.
Mr. Bush was born with a silver spoon in the mouth and many more at the bedside. His family was wealthy and well-connected and very much the right sort of people, members of America’s WASP elite going back generations. Yale, Skull and Bones, open doors at the whitest of white-shoe firms on Wall Street – the Bush men got easy entry into a not-at-all-fictional League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
But the Kardashian-kid benefits came with obligations and duties, and a sense that the ego had to be tempered, or that one had to at the very least give the appearance of taming it. Mr. Bush’s mother constantly reminded him to avoid a certain vulgar word: “I.” He did not come from the selfie generation.
Decades later, comedian Dana Carvey would do a memorable impersonation of President Bush, throwing out catch phrases such as, “Not gonna do it!” The “gonna” was a scion of the establishment trying to sound Texan. But the leader of the free world’s insistence on constructing sentences without a certain pronoun was the result of his mid-century, Eastern establishment upbringing.
It was partly an affectation. It was partly not.
In 1987, Newsweek magazine ran a picture of Mr. Bush on the cover, with the headline: “Fighting the ‘Wimp Factor.’” All that self-effacement, even in the face of so much accomplishment, had led to people thinking that maybe he was too milquetoast to be president. But that came from a misunderstanding of the difference between appearance and reality, outer and inner.
On Aug. 1, 1944, a 20-year-old George H.W. Bush was at the controls of a Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber, one of several that attacked the Japanese base on the island of Chichijima. His aircraft was hit by fire from the ground and he and his crew bailed out over the sea. The other two men did not survive. Mr. Bush landed alone in the ocean. A Japanese boat sailed out to capture him; it was driven off by Mr. Bush’s fellow pilots. Four hours later, he was rescued by a U.S. submarine.
Eight other American airmen shot down that day were tortured and executed. Several were eaten by their captors.
In 1988, when Mr. Bush was nominated as the Republican Party’s candidate for president, he gave an acceptance speech whose most memorable line was a call to make America a “kinder, gentler nation.” Even at the time, it was widely satirized. Today, it’s impossible to imagine the current President using such words, except as an insult.
But someone who’d gone to war as a young man and would lead a nation into war as an older one could appreciate that kindness and gentleness were not things to be mocked. They were blessings we might want to multiply during our all-too-brief time on this Earth.
Mr. Bush did not give empty speeches about Making America Great Again. He experienced the 20th century’s two peaks of American triumph and power. As a young man, he helped make possible the victory in the Second World War. As president, he presided over the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Soviet Union.
The Trump era yearns for the trappings of power, but it misunderstands how that power was wielded: with an eye beyond mere victory, to lasting peace. Japan’s American conquerors did not subject it to a Carthaginian peace. Instead, with remarkable wisdom, they turned it into a liberal democracy, one of the world’s most prosperous and successful.
Similarly, as president, Mr. Bush tried to avoid treating Russia as the Cold War’s loser. In the Gulf War, he built an international coalition against Saddam Hussein, but he resisted the impulse to widen the war beyond Kuwait. He was widely criticized for not going all the way to Baghdad. After the fiasco of the Iraq War, when America hastily conquered a country it did not know how to govern or rebuild, his prudence was revealed as prescience.
He was a conservative who believed in prudently preserving and building, not angrily breaking.
The past was not perfect, and neither was George Herbert Walker Bush. But he will be missed, as will his generation.