There was a moment during the 1992 Presidential campaign when then-President George H.W. Bush was asked during a public appearance a pointed question by a young man in the audience, and the President asked the young man, “How old are you?” Twenty-five, he replied. “It shows,” said the President.
In my formative years, that sort of crystalized it for me. Bush’s presidency from January of ’89 through January of ’93 overlapped with my high school years almost exactly. The youngest Navy fighter pilot to enlist in World War II had become, in the post-Cold War, MTV grunge era… old. In a world teeming with change, and bursting at the seems with new possibility at the dawn of the internet age, but still struggling with a post-Reaganomics economy in the full grip of a banking and housing crisis, Bush seemed out of step with his surroundings. It seemed as though the game had passed him by.
In 1992, he was caught between Bill Clinton’s “third way” liberalism, and an increasingly conservative Republican Party that would punish him dearly for reneging on his promise not to raise taxes, and who saw him as a lesser version of his iconic predecessor, Ronald Reagan. He was mocked for throwing up on the Japanese Prime Minister. Dana Carvey owes his career to Bush as much as Wayne’s World. Neil Young openly derided him in Rockin’ In the Free World, singing “We’ve got a thousand points of light for the homeless man/we’ve got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand.”
His critics were not necessarily wrong, either. The economy, the dog-whistle politics of the ’88 campaign, his open courting of the religious right, his judicial nominees, and most particularly the Gulf War, were precursors for some of the serious political and global crises we’ve faced since.
We called him wimpy even though he’d been shot down and rescued during combat. But most of us didn’t know that about him, because he never talked about himself like that. He looked stiff standing next to a cooler, sax-playing Bill Clinton, even though we suspected, and arguably knew, there was something darker lurking below Clinton’s charisma. Bush hailed from a different era, when Americans wanted a President with as much substance as flash. But that era was fading. His basic human decency was now seen as a bug, not a feature.
Bush’s generation, it always seemed to me, was filled with men seeking greatness, sometimes at the expense of essential goodness. Kennedy was a great man. Johnson was a great man. Reagan was a great man. Was George Bush a great man? Somehow, that question seems beside the point now. He was a good man. And now that he’s gone, why does it feel as though we’ve lost something more precious than greatness? Something more important than stature or legacy?
Somewhere in the intervening twenty-five years, we started to confuse “greatness” with fame. Wealth with wisdom. We’re probably only a few years from our first YouTube celebrity President. “Did you see him get kicked in the head by that mule? He says what I think! One million views! He’s got my vote!”
Now instead of voting for a good man, we’ve chosen a wealthy, famous man. This week will be rife with comparisons between the two. “How did we get here,” we’ll ask, all while focusing on how awkward it will be when Trump attends the funeral.
Bush was great because he was a good man. He was underappreciated because of his decency. He was ushered out of office not because of his mistakes, of which there were a few, but because he preferred substance over style. He was left behind because he didn’t keep pace with our need for the visceral over our desire for the thoughtful. Can you even imagine George H.W. Bush not only ordering Mexican children be pepper sprayed, but that its all perfectly safe and harmless to them?
When he’s laid to rest this week, we’ll maybe pause to remember all this, and hope perhaps in vain that his funeral isn’t just for a man, but for the concept of basic American decency as a whole.