This week, we bury a man of honor.
And by honor, I don’t mean the type of honor that accrues to a person just by virtue of rising to the presidency, because not all who achieve that post are people of honor. Nor do I mean any kind of honor conferred by others through popularity, fame or high ratings. I mean instead an old-fashioned form of honor that is earned by living as much as possible by an internal code of conduct, and by honestly measuring one’s self and one’s life against it.
George Herbert Walker Bush was such a person. He was a man of conscience, a man who tried to do right as he saw it. When he erred, as of course he did, it was generally an error in perspective, in discerning what that right thing was, rather than a mistake born of hasty judgment or ill will. His example has much to teach us.
In the Bush world view, expertise was useful rather than disqualifying. Thinking with your gut, rather than with facts and logic, was just laziness, and to brag that your gut feeling was smarter than anyone else’s brain would be evidence that neither your brain nor gut was sound.
The Bush code tells you that it’s a strong person who can laugh at himself or herself, while the fearful cannot. It tells you that ambition is iron, that iron cracks under stress, but that ambition alloyed with humility is steel. It says that politics should be treated as a public service and a public trust, not as a mere vehicle for personal aggrandizement.
Bush understood that diplomacy works and is to be respected, while even unlimited military power has its limits, a lesson that he did not fully pass on to his son. Likewise, that cutting taxes does not increase revenue. He saw decency, honesty and trustworthiness as more than moral values that we should teach our children, and should not be seen as signs of weakness. Such traits are instead useful, effective tools that make life easier for those with characters strong enough to employ them.
Their utility aside, however, he also thought that decency, honesty and trustworthiness are important in their own right. Also, that bullies don’t prosper, nor should we allow them to do so, and that it’s not about you. Also, bone spurs are no excuse.
He saw us as a nation built on individual freedom, which should not be confused with a nation built on individual selfishness. We do have obligations to each other, and those obligations extend to those we’ve never met and to those who are yet to come. Wealth and power do not make you immune to those obligations; they compound those obligations.
The other person might have a point, and if you don’t at least listen to him, you can’t expect him to listen to you.
Government of the people, by the people and for the people is not an enemy of the people. A president is president for all Americans, not merely for those who put that president into office. Reality can’t be ignored; we have to confront the world on its own terms, as it is, rather than how we would prefer to imagine it. Ideology must respect and adjust to the facts; facts cannot be adjusted to conform to ideology, not for long and not without consequences.
Bush understood better than most that the world is complicated and that we are all imperfect people feeling our way through those complications. And while the code that he used to steer through those complications may have been dismissed by some as unfashionable, we are living through a time that instead confirms its usefulness.