All the talk about the attributes of this or that generation is usually overblown. But there is an exception when a cohort of young Americans shares a massive, overwhelming experience of depression or war. A certain view of their country is often formed and fixed.
This can be said of John F. Kennedy, the commanding officer of PT-109. And Lt. Cmdr. Richard Nixon, who ran the South Pacific Combat Air Transport Command. And Navy aviator George H.W. Bush. Serving in the Pacific theater of World War II, these young men had few traits of temperament or character in common. But the war shaped their conception of America’s global role, and their view of the necessity and capability of government in general.
People who fought in World War II were marinated in the ideas that evil is real and that American power is an essential, irreplaceable force for good. They intuitively understood the moral narrative of Munich, Buchenwald, D-Day, Hiroshima, NATO and the twilight struggle. And they generally shared the notion that America could do anything that power, wealth, will and courage could accomplish.
This presented the temptation of overreach, as in Vietnam. JFK’s inaugural pledge to “pay any price, bear any burden” should be taken seriously, but not literally. But the children of World War II really did believe that a torch was passing from Dwight Eisenhower’s generation – the generation of their commanding officers – to a group of Americans who had rescued the world and fully intended to lead it. Given the other paths America might have taken, they did an extraordinary job. They twice saved humanity from well-armed, aggressive, totalitarian ideologies – first as soldiers, sailors and airmen, then as statesmen. America and the world owe them a great deal.
Being one of the youngest Navy pilots in World War II, and blessed with longevity, George H.W. Bush was among the last of his cohort to leave us. As intelligence chief, diplomat and president, he brought to his calling a set of values that might be called patrician. He was less New Frontier and more old school. He rose up in government on the impulse of service. He lived by high standards of decency, fair play, humility, love of family and love of country. He was relentlessly moderate in temperament and political instinct.
This type of “establishment” code is easier to lampoon than replace. So much that a graceless age dismisses as repression is actually politeness, compassion and dignity.
And Bush’s moral sensibilities turned out to be exactly what was needed at a decisive historical moment. As the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its economic and moral failure, what was needed from America was patience, wisdom, steady purpose and the generosity of true power. In presiding over the breaking of nations, an excess of vision or ambition might have been dangerously disruptive. Crowing would have led to bitterness and unpredictable anger. And Bush was incapable of crowing.
On closer exposure to Bush, there was something more at work than a moral code. I generally saw the elder Bush through the eyes of his son, George W. Bush, for whom I worked. And he could hardly mention his father’s name without welling up in tears of affection. During George W.’s first Republican National Convention speech, we had to cut short the section praising his father, because the son could not get through the words without breaking down. There was a sweetness to their relationship that is a tribute to both men. George H.W. Bush loved deeply, and was deeply loved. He was sentimental without being fragile. And those who saw weakness in his manner know nothing about true strength – the victory over ego, over impulse, over hatred.
Dying can be cruel and unfair. But there was a profound and encouraging sense of rightness, of fittingness, at Bush’s death. He left few things unaccomplished, and none that mattered. He was only briefly parted from the love of his life. His strength failed before his spirit. Bush died as well as a man could manage – full of years, full of honors, surrounded by affection, confident in his faith, knowing that his work on Earth was done.
Bush’s life provides assurance that sometimes things go gloriously right. Sometimes Americans vote for a decent and honest leader. Sometimes a president finds his calling and his moment. Sometimes a good man meets a good end.
And still. It is a sad and solemn task to dig the graves of giants.
Michael Gerson is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is email@example.com.
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