It’s easy to sit in judgment of a man like George H.W. Bush in the days after his death. Spend a few minutes on Twitter and you’ll see critiques of his involvement in the War on Drugs. Of his failure to do anything meaningful about the AIDS crisis. Of his 1988 campaign’s vicious attacks on Michael Dukakis, particularly the racist Willie Horton ad.
These critiques are all worth stating and we would be wrong to sing his praises without holding him accountable for his lesser moments. And yet, to launch these critiques on their own is a mistake reflective of the hyper-partisan nature of political conversation. If you post something about Bush being an honorable man, your mentions fill up with people saying “what about x.” These people are not asking for a full accounting of Bush’s record. Instead, they want the negative aspects of his life to be the full focus, to the point of making it impossible to recognize the good also found there.
What’s troubling about this is the implied demand for purity found in these attacks. Unless your life was purely good, you cannot be honored publicly without attacks on those remembering your life in its totality. We need to remember that the rejection of complexity in politics is how we ended up with political parties where anyone who steps outside the party line is expelled for their heresy. It’s how we lost the ability to compromise and move forward as a country, however imperfect or agonizingly slow that progress might be. For all his flaws, Bush understood that sacrifice was at the heart of compromise. He knew that success and progress were not the same thing as personal achievement.
When he reached the White House, Bush recognized the perilous financial situation his predecessor dropped in his lap and understood that the only solution would be a compromise with Democrats. And this meant breaking a core component of his 1988 campaign pledge. When he stood before the convention attendees and the nation watching from home and told them to read his lips, he was connecting an anti-tax policy position to his deeply felt sense of honor. He was giving his followers his word. It would have been easy to point to that pledge and refuse to make any deal that resulted in higher taxes. But Bush put the good of the country over the easy option and accepted tax increases that were essential to aiding our economic recovery. He understood that this choice was likely to ruin him with his conservative base and the rage that ensued made it unlikely that he would be re-elected in 1992. But this is what we mean by duty and honor. He took a risk that ended his political career because he knew it was the right thing to do. This is an exceedingly rare thing to see in the 2018 political world.
Perhaps his greatest achievement came in the chaotic final months of the Cold War. As the tide was turning in our favor and Eastern Europe and the USSR were shaken by endless instability, Bush handled things with tremendous care, making sure to work closely with his ideological opponent, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He recognized that an overeager American response could easily result in a violent reaction from the Soviets. When the Berlin Wall suddenly crumbled, Bush remained stoic, despite criticism from the news media and members of his own party to celebrate a win for our side. When pressed by reporters about his resistance to spike the football, Bush replied, “I’m just not an emotional guy.” Considering his own son jumped at the chance to theatrically and triumphantly hail the end to a war that was far from over, this restraint is both astonishing and admirable.
We mocked Bush often for his reserved, patrician manner. But we overlooked how this character made him the right man for a difficult moment. Like Teddy Roosevelt, he felt a sense of duty, a responsibility to give back to a country that gave him so much. His mother instilled in him a sense of humility, where personal achievement was not something to celebrate. When he told her about scoring multiple goals in a soccer game, she replied, “That’s nice, but how did the team do?” In so many ways, this question is at the heart of Bush’s life. He could have scored personal victories in these moments, but he cared more about a win for the team. And that meant taking a backseat and risking his own political future in the process.
There are many moments in Bush’s life where he came up short and embraced the worst aspects of politics. But perhaps we should remember that we can say the same about virtually every man and woman who has ever served on the national level. Rather than single out the failures, we would be better off seeing the qualities worth emulating; the qualities that are painfully absent from a political world where all we’re left with are flawed people failing to rise to the challenges all political leaders must face. I disagree with Bush on almost every aspect of his policy positions, but I see great value in the better angels of his nature. I only hope that we take this moment to see how we can bring those values back at a time of moral and ethical darkness.