The Founding Fathers may not be too happy with us right now. They were most afraid of tyranny and imperialism taking over our experiment in self-government. The president was to be a commoner; not above the law, and certainly not royalty of any kind. That concern over a president trying to become a monarch led them to discourage displays of celebration and remembrance that would boast of royal trappings. This is why we don’t have huge military parades, the ilk of dictators, rolling past our nation’s Capitol.
It is also why we don’t have regal ceremonies when our past presidents die. The exception is when a sitting president is ripped from us through murder, as was the case with Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. Those public funerals included pomp that was designed for the people–to help bring closure to a grieving nation. Those displays are not designed to honor a 94-year-old former president who has been in private life for more than a generation. Honor? Yes. Interment in a public venue? Absolutely. Remember with historic libraries and grounds? You bet. But, stage a funeral that could easily have come out of 18th century Versailles spanning an entire week of the public consciousness? No.
I am here petitioning the founders for an exception. I’d like to propose to them that the recent display that brought former president George H.W. Bush to his final resting place was called for as a reminder to the people of the United States of America what the office of the presidency was, should, and can be.
I’ve written before about political leaders needing diverse skills in getting elected and then flipping the switch to governing mode. Well, it turns out that governing mode has two distinct skills as well. One is to be able to understand, create, and enact laws that will serve the country’s needs. This is where planning, prioritizing, and compromise are called for. In this portion of the job, the president has to put his personal agenda on hold and act in concert with all 325 million of us.
The other half is leader, comforter, and national example of human kindness and concern.
Former president Bush was adequate at two diverse skills. He was a fierce campaigner with sharp elbows. During the primary when he was running against Bob Dole for their party’s nomination, Sen. Dole beseeched him to “quit lying about my record.” That was an admonishment that was likely deserved. Post-election, his legislation was scattered, but showed concern for the good of the country. He oversaw the reunification of Germany and the foundation of the North American Trade Agreement that was finalized under Bill Clinton. He vetoed one civil rights bill because he thought it would create a quota system for hiring.
Then he helped pass the Americans with Disabilities Act which, along with the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act helped create civil rights legislation for millions of disabled Americans. That alone could be his legacy.
Two of Bush 41’s cabinet members made it onto Bush 43’s team. Dick Cheney became vice president and brought along Donald Rumsfeld who was never a Bush Sr. favorite. Between them they were able to hijack the administration’s war policy into their own hawkish thinking. The other cabinet holdover was General Colin Powell as Secretary of State who, like many military personnel, was much more a dove trying to balance those wanting war at the drop of a hat with ideas to sustain peace. So, no matter how one looks at the executive branch of government considering war, both Bush presidents scored 50%.
Bush 41 selected two Supreme Court justices, neither of whom thrilled him. David Souter voted more liberally than Bush would have liked and Clarence Thomas brought a stain of controversy to the court due to his alleged behavior with women.
Having an issue with Justice Thomas’ behavior brings us to the crux of why President Bush deserves plaudits as chief executive. George H.W. Bush may be the best example of a president executing the portion of the job that calls for compassion and concern for others. He was a humble man who eschewed the spotlight in favor of casting brightness on the office. The historian and author Jon Meacham tells of reading the biography of Bush he wrote aloud to him during Bush’s decline. The ex-president’s comment was, “That’s an awfully lot about me.” It’s your biography, Mr. President.
The stories most told about 41 are stories of letters of compassion and concern written to thousands of people. There are stories of him helping countless others in need. One did not need to be a blueblood or a high ranking official to get a kind or encouraging nod from the president. All one needed to be was a person in need of a better day. George H.W. Bush tried his darndest to provide some sunlight.
This is why I am asking the founders for an exemption on giving a common man royal treatment. The regal funeral display was not to lionize the man. It was for the people. The office of the presidency has fallen into alarming disarray. There is none of 41’s compassion, love, or understanding of the human condition coming from the White House today. It is a blight on the office. We didn’t need to canonize George H.W. Bush, we needed to remind ourselves what the office of the president once was and what it can be again.