We need to get back to 41’s finer virtues

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America has been mourning this week — mourning the loss of something far greater than any one man.

There is plenty to mourn in the passing of George Herbert Walker Bush. By almost any objective measure, he was a family man of abiding faith who dedicated his life to serving our nation.

In his one term, Bush 41 presided over the end of the Cold War, ushered a reunified Germany into NATO and brought the Israelis and Palestinians to the peace table in the Oslo Accords. Bush assembled one of the most diverse and unlikely of international coalitions and restored the sovereign freedom of Kuwait — and did it without wandering into the morass of an endless war.

In no other time in history has a major world power collapsed — as the USSR did in 1991 — without a major conflict over filling the void. But, thanks in no small part to the leadership of the late President Bush, that transition was made relatively peacefully.

At home — and H.W. doesn’t get enough credit for domestic policy — this Republican stumped for and signed into law the Clean Air Act, 1991 Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

All these accomplishments are reason enough to mourn the passing of George H. W. Bush. But, I fear, America is mourning the loss of something greater than the life of this great man.

Mind you, the late President Bush was not perfect. I disagreed with many of his policies. He went too far in some regards, and not nearly far enough in others. He was — like me, like us all — a deeply flawed human. But, even where I disagree with his policies, or feel he fell short, I’ve always felt he served with sincere humility and civility, placing the greater good above himself.

And that, I think, is why America has been so beset with grief this week. As with the passing of John McCain, we sense in the death of George H. W. Bush something essential about what it means to be an American is slipping away from us. Watching the frailty of Bob Dole saluting Bush’s flag-draped casket, we realize just how tenuous our grip is on this type of leadership from our past.

Again, none of these men were perfect. None of us are. We’re all a balance of flaws and finer virtues. But, in the finer virtues of the 41st president, and the accomplishments he won, we see a stark contrast to what America has since become.

We mourn a president who hated the word “legacy” because the office and the nation were more important than personal acclaim. We see today a presidency in which braggadocio overshadows the integrity of the office.

We mourn a president who lived by a code of impeccable civility, even toward his fiercest foes. We see today political dialogue dominated by hateful and occasionally incoherent invective, slung about in an endless screed of self-aggrandizement and falsehood on Twitter.

We mourn a moderate president who reached across the aisle to work with the opposing party for the good of the nation. We see today a hyper-partisan environment, in which both sides would rather see the ship of state sink than reach across the aisle.

We mourn a president who strengthened international alliances, signed historic agreements to reduce nuclear arms, was a leader in the Middle East Peace Process, and positioned America — under either party — to lead the world into a more peaceful, prosperous time. We see today an America that is weakening NATO and violating its own treaties; an America that is escalating, rather than preventing, the proliferation of nuclear arms; an America pouring gasoline on the old flames of conflict in the Middle East; an America that has abdicated its position as a world leader, threatening peace and prosperity for future generations.

We mourn a day when we could disagree, even vehemently, with a president’s policies, and still respect the president’s finer virtues, and know they had earned and deserved that respect.

How do we get back there? I believe the late president, in his inauguration speech from Jan. 20, 1989, gave us the answer: “America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.”

It is past time for America to become wholly herself again, to live by a moral principle greater than cheap nationalism and fear, and to make kinder and gentler the world we leave to our children.

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