During the past week, many commentators observed how the death of George H.W. Bush marked the end of an era—not just the last of the “greatest generation” to occupy the White House, but more significantly the loss of civility, kindness and human decency among those who occupy the Oval Office. Culminating in a funeral service attended by all living Presidents, the whole country seemed to take a breath, pausing from the current trajectory of division and distrust to remember a time when “a thousand points of light” could be more than a late-night comic’s punch line. Like the loss of John McCain in August, the empty shoes left by such icons seem almost impossibly too large to fill.
I do not wish to romanticize the man. His dog-whistle use of Willie Horton during his campaign, his hostility to the issue of women’s reproductive rights and his willful ignorance and inaction in the midst of the AIDS epidemic mark just of few of his positions with which I disagreed then and which I find antithetical to human rights and human dignity now.
Still, as the recurring tributes have articulated, George Bush 41 is remembered for his humility, his sense of human decency and thoughtfulness even to those who opposed him politically, his willingness to work across the aisle for the good of his country (and after his term in office, for the whole world), his sense of humor which could be sharp but never demeaning and his love of family—and especially for First Lady Barbara Bush to whom he was devoted for 73 years. These qualities lie in stark contrast to the current occupant of the White House and the general tone in today’s media/political swamp. He will be missed. It is ironic that even after his death, he continues to teach us (or, perhaps, just remind us) of how we should treat one another.
A central premise in my recent book, Beyond the Comma, is that when we connect events of global significance with deeply personal “comma moments” in our own lives, we become more empathetic human beings. This week provided an opportunity for me (and perhaps many Americans) to do just that. Those who know me well know about the deep love and respect I had for my own father who died about eighteen months ago at age 95. Several passages in the book describe events between us that provided me with the essential building blocks for becoming a responsible, caring adult.
Like H.W., my Dad taught me lessons throughout his entire life. Like H.W., he was married to my Mom for more than 70 years. Like H.W., he continued to teach beyond the grave. Just last week, I learned yet another new thing about him. My wife Blythe and I were visiting my Mom, still amazing at 94. Since his death, she has discovered scores of albums containing literally thousands of pictures, notes and letters (many of them, tender love notes to her while he served in World War II). Last weekend, my mother showed us yet another album that she was seeing for the first time. It contained every anniversary card they had exchanged during three-quarters of a century of marriage. She laughed and cried at all the silly messages or romantic expressions he shared in his lifetime of love.
He had compiled this record of his life without anyone knowing about it and squirreled the albums away in places difficult to find. And as my mother discovered these books from week to week while sorting through closets, she could feel a “living presence” with her—his final gift to her, and one that keeps on giving.
During a week of remembrances for President Bush, many private moments were shared that brought gentle laughter or grateful tears to an entire nation. While in a small cottage in Pennsylvania, one woman quietly relived joys and sorrows of a life similarly shared over a love affair that lasted three-quarters of a century. At the intersection of the grand dignity in the National Cathedral and the quiet serenity in my Mom’s home, we can see a shimmering reflection of how beautiful life can be.