When we are each remembered upon our deaths and, oh, we will all be remembered, it may help to know that the deceased, grand or small, has absolutely no say-so, no recourse. No, memories are left to our friends and foe alike and there have been countless times in my existence when the departed would not like what they would hear.
As I gave our departed 41st President an extra brush in my Morning Readings over the weekend, I discovered George H.W. Bush had a very unique and singular attribute when compared to our other presidents, both past and present: He was ‘nice.’ Imagine that! Who, in their wildest dream, would have thought among the greatest virtues, instead of yesterday’s habit, would be kindness to others?
First, that may sound silly, trite in today’s increasingly antagonistic society, but … think about this: What could possibly be a better compliment in any eulogy than to laud one’s kindness, and the art of being nice. Jon Meacham’s book, “Destiny and Power,” shows repeatedly how our 41st president, who will lie in state this week, got more done with kindness as our nation’s leader than he could have ever hoped otherwise.
He was the last known President who had the ability to successfully navigate “the aisle,” that no man’s land in Washington that for all practical purposes seems to be boarded up these days. Bob Corker said it well: “He befriended his political foes, reminding Americans that there is always more that unites us than divides us."
In his book, “Rule and Ruin,” Geoffrey Kabaservice writes about the nigh-extinct tribe of moderate Republicans and clearly identifies why, through Bush’s two terms as Vice President under Ronald Reagan, and then his own Presidency, Congress thrived as it should. “A lot of them had fought in World War II and they looked at each other not as partisan enemies, but people who had been comrades in arms."
Following World War II, there was an intense patriotism that demanded “country first.” Bush, a World War II hero who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross at age 20, showed his colors early when he enlisted immediately after high school instead of enrolling at Yale. “It was a red, white, and blue thing. Your country's attacked, you'd better get in there and try to help," he told Meacham.
“The World War II generation had a sense of serving the country together and also shared a belief in professionalism, said Jeremi Suri, a University of Texas historian. "Bush was the last president who believed that people who had knowledge and experience should make decisions based on that and not on their ideological views," he explained.
"It was a businessman's approach to making decisions about leadership. You appoint and promote the person who's most qualified over the person you might agree with more."
Here’s an excerpt from NPR’s Alan Greenblatt’s narrative that aired Friday:
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GEORGE H.W. BUSH CAPITALIZED ON KINDNESS TO BUILD RELATIONSHIPS
His 1988 race against Democrat Michael Dukakis became notorious for an ugly ad showcasing rapist and murderer Willie Horton. After questioning the patriotism of Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992, Bush said, "You can call it mud wrestling, but I think it's fair to put it into focus."
He was willing to say what he thought was necessary as a candidate, but in office, Bush maintained a strict sense of patrician decorum.
"He saw himself as a deal-maker, not as someone who had all the right answers," Suri says. "There was a humility about him that's been lost on both sides of the aisle."
The importance of building up relationships was an ethos Bush brought not only to domestic politics, but also to international affairs, which became his major focus as president. He had come to know many foreign leaders through his service as vice president, CIA director, ambassador to the United Nations and envoy to China.
What Bush biographer Tom Wicker called his "matchless personal acquaintance" with world leaders helped him form a large coalition to repel Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait and also shaped his response to a series of revolutions in Europe that led to the end of the Cold War.
Bush quietly gave space to Mikhail Gorbachev, president of the Soviet Union, to allow that country to adjust to the decline in its fortunes and influence. “Bush did not threaten, make grandiose pronouncements or gloat,” Robert Gates wrote in his memoir “From the Shadows.” Gates was Bush's CIA director and later became secretary of defense under Bush's son and President Barack Obama.
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On Sunday an article appeared on ‘The Week’ website where Matthew Walther wrote: “Bush was the last important politician to embody all the old WASP virtues — decency, stoicism, self-denial, gentle wit, skepticism, and courtesy — and, at the time of his death, our greatest living president.”
On CNN’s ‘State of the Union’ yesterday, former Secretary of State James A. Baker said, “George Bush was possibly the most kind and considerate person I’ve ever known in my life.”
Host Jake Tapper asked Baker whether the era of civility in politics died with Bush on Friday. “I hope it didn’t die on Friday, because we badly need to bring some civility back into our public discourse,” came the reply. “We need to stop yelling at each other and start listening to each other. George Bush had a Congress that was totally controlled by Democrats, and look what he got done.”
Precisely. He was nice. He was kind. And while we see some of both fleeting, perhaps the memory of what George the Senior once attained during his remarkable life will one day return to Washington and greatly benefit the American people.
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A COLLECTION OF SOME OF GEORGE H.W. BUSH’S BEST QUOTES
* -- There is a God and He is good, and his love, while free, has a self-imposed cost: We must be good to one another.
* - Courage is a terribly important value. It means you don’t run away when things are tough. It means you don’t turn away from a friend when he or she is in trouble. It means standing up against the majority opinion... There’s a lot of people who won’t wear it on their sleeve, or display it through some heroic act. But courage is having the strength to do what’s honorable and decent.
* -- We know what works: Freedom works. We know what's right: Freedom is right. We know how to secure a more just and prosperous life for man on Earth: through free markets, free speech, free elections and the exercise of free will unhampered by the state.
* -- America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the Nation and gentler the face of the world.
* -- I'm conservative, but I'm not a nut about it.
* -- I have nothing but contempt and anger for those who betray the trust by exposing the name of [CIA] sources. They are, in my view, the most insidious, of traitors.
* -- Our nation is the enduring dream of every immigrant who ever set foot on these shores, and the millions still struggling to be free. This nation, this idea called America, was and always will be a new world -- our new world.
* -- I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.
* -- I will never apologize for the United States — I don't care what the facts are.... I'm not an apologize-for-America kind of guy.
* -- I do not like broccoli and I haven't liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I'm President of the United States and I'm not going to eat any more broccoli.