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William Murchison / April 30, 2013

When ‘Bush League’ Is a Compliment

Naturally enough, the blowout at the Bush Presidential Center in Dallas last week was all about the Bush who gave the center its name – George Walker Bush, aka “Bush 43,” or, for convenience, Dubya. Another George Bush was on hand nevertheless. We all know him, or at least we once did. In tribute to his son, the man known as “Bush 41” – otherwise former President George Herbert Walker Bush – rose from his wheelchair with assistance. He spoke a few simple, direct sentences full of affirmation and pride. Then he resumed the seat to which Parkinson’s, or a variation of this life-sapping malady, has consigned him.

Naturally enough, the blowout at the Bush Presidential Center in Dallas last week was all about the Bush who gave the center its name – George Walker Bush, aka “Bush 43,” or, for convenience, Dubya.

Another George Bush was on hand nevertheless. We all know him, or at least we once did. In tribute to his son, the man known as “Bush 41” – otherwise former President George Herbert Walker Bush – rose from his wheelchair with assistance. He spoke a few simple, direct sentences full of affirmation and pride. Then he resumed the seat to which Parkinson’s, or a variation of this life-sapping malady, has consigned him.

While on his feet, he did more than grimly defy his affliction. He put in numerous minds, I can only guess, the image of a public servant who happens to be not only a patriot but also a gentleman. I bring this up not to compare the name of our 41st president with the name or names of public servants we all could tick off on our fingers. I bring up the matter to highlight an ideal of public service we no longer take for granted. Quite the contrary maybe. When we do see it, it can knock us for a loop.

George H. W. Bush turns 89 next month, his jumping-out-of-airplanes-and-speeding-around-in-fast-boats days long over; the personal energy sometimes described as “manic” ticking slower and slower. In ways not entirely physical, he seems more and more a figure from a distant era.

That would be partly no doubt on account of his absence from public view since failing of reelection in 1992, at the hands of Bill Clinton, with Ross Perot holding Clinton’s coat. Then there’s the matter of the Bush style. We live in the age of political ugliness and acrimony. At the national level, our politicians appear to spend more time stabbing each other in the back than in actually attending to the country’s business. Pretty much everybody in politics, it often seems, regards everyone else in politics as a consummate stinker.

The Bush manner could madden the politically serious. What was this about raising taxes after telling the world and everybody, “Read my lips – no new taxes”? He never made up for it. He couldn’t get his arms around “the vision thing.” He regarded the president’s job as one of dutiful service rather than of inspirational razzmatazz. He was in the political sense more ribbon clerk than Maserati salesman. Nor did his wish for a “kinder, gentler” country (words crafted, I think, by Peggy Noonan) win him friends among visceral conservatives.

Ad-libbing, Bush could at times sound goofy. His Yale-degree-cum-summer-house-in-Maine background lent itself to caricature.

Never mind all that: He was genuine – the real McCoy. He wasn’t endeavoring to be something he wasn’t. No political makeover artists had their way with him. What he said he believed – unless I am grossly mistaken – he actually believed.

How naive! We might exclaim. Don’t we know politics is all fakery and flummery? Certainly a lot of it is. The power that goes with political success invites lowest-common-denominator tactics: rabble-rousing, fake-angry denunciations, fake proposals; we’ve seen it all. George H. W. Bush’s resistance to the fake and insincere is among his most beguiling traits in the political sphere.

A gentleman – “41” is that in spades – can be wrong, misguided, off-pitch. That isn’t the point. A faker can be all those things, as well, without enhancing or adorning the drama of the occasion through simple honesty.

I confess now as I felt free to confess 20-odd years ago my anxieties concerning the stewardship of President George H. W. Bush: for whom I voted with, well, anxiety of a sort. Do you know what, though? That man – Bush 41 – did his best for the country he loved and served; furthermore, he did it with class rather than showmanship, dignity and honor rather than demagoguery and the crossing of fingers inside coat pockets. Of the George H. W. Bush style, and of the public service ethic that accompanied it, we could use presently a vast supply.

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