In what was an otherwise busy week, I was glued to the screen watching the entire farewell ceremonies for George H.W. Bush, from the loading of his casket on Air Force One bound for Washington to his oldest son’s funny and moving eulogy to the return and internment at College Station, Texas.
One thing struck me deeply. We have now been for two years into a spectacle of continuous opposition to Trump with endless talking heads on cable news, hysteria on social media all the way to a lawyer defending a porn star who at the same time hinted at a run at the presidency, a move that was even taken seriously. Everything one could think of has been thrown at Trump, yet it seems nothing has worked in effectively opposing the current president and as of this day the deliberations as to who could beat him in less than two years from now remain unresolved. Yet, in death it seems the elder Bush has somehow unleashed a spirit of what America may need and what the presidency and real political leadership is all about. When all the former presidents, vice presidents and spouses lined up in Washington Cathedral it became more than evident how they all so differed from the current occupant of the White House. There was no need to make it explicit, the entire week morphed into a quiet and steady rebuttal of Trump and turned out to be so much more effective than all the noise of the past few years.
The presidency of Bush reminded us that the office is one that represents the entire nation and a bipartisan approach is in all likelihood the best route to effectively bring the nation together and move it forward to unity. It requires one to do what is right and in Bush’s case as former senator Alan Simpson so eloquently eulogized, making decisions that you know will eventually hurt you, but will benefit the nation as a whole. In short: country over party. The late 41st president reconnected us with a better past where it seems Washington operated on that 'kindler and gentler' notion.
Now it is worth remembering that Bush was not beyond hardball power play. In all the moving remembrances we did not hear that it were his campaigns that gave us Lee Atwater, the late political genius who is credited with forever poisoning the well of campaigning. As with any other politician, Bush had to remove many obstacles to the White House and the man who more or less simultaneously was in the mix for the same job was Kansas senator Bob Dole. Of the same age and like Bush a World War II veteran, although it is worth noting that Dole came out of the war barely alive and had forever lost the use of his right arm. The two men struggled and it was Bush that came out as the winner as president and two-term VP, whereas Dole served on Gerald Ford’s losing ticket in 1976 and lost the election as the GOP nominee against Bill Clinton in 1996.
Yet it was Bob Dole who defined the mood of this week by paying his respects to the late president in the Capitol Rotunda. At age ninety-five and bound to his wheelchair he was brought in, helped to his feet by an aide and with a trembling left arm saluted his once political rival, his fellow veteran and his former commander-in-chief. The moment captured more than a last farewell, it was a nostalgic and painful goodbye to the greatest generation. The generation that gave us deep and wise political leadership and that evaporated on us with the coming of age of the baby boomers. These were the men who had seen war in its various and ugly forms and who understood intuitively that the post-World War II world order was a unique historical gift. These men gave that order the careful and deliberate management, the smart diplomacy and above all the never ending efforts to keep as many people and nations on the same page to preserve a measure of world stability. These were the men that were in the end able to set aside differences and do what is good. These were decent men. These were the men that were patriots and loyal family members who fought for the very best for as long as they could.
In the sadness of Bob Dole’s eyes and the effort it took to make that last salute we came to realize how far we have drifted from that golden age of leaders and by consequence that formidable age of American world leadership. In Bob Dole we witnessed the passing of an era, a turning point into a deep unknown and likely very unstable future. And Bob Dole, I think, was fully aware of that sobering reality when he brought out that final salute.