George H.W. Bush is a man of sterling character, not to mention one of the most woefully underestimated and underappreciated presidents of the 20th century. I’m thankful that famed biographer Jon Meacham wrote a biographical tome to set the record straight about our 41st president, who entered the office not only as one of the most morally and temperamentally decent of men but also as one of history’s best prepared chief executives.
Meacham took up the same theme more recently in a New York Times guest op-ed, stressing that in conservative political terms, Bush remains an anachronism, a throwback to an earlier iteration of conservatism, uncomfortable in the raucus Tea Party, Breitbart environment that defines conservatism today.
For me, the character of George H.W. Bush, is best expressed in the emotion-laden, gracious eulogy he offered at the funeral of his political mentor and predecessor, Ronald Reagan. Nancy Reagan did not like Bush or his wife, Barbara, but ever the fierce defender of her husband’s legacy, she never conceived of anyone better suited than her husband’s vice president and successor to eulogize his memory. She was not disappointed.
Temperamentally, I tend to identify with the character and politics of George Bush more than most other presidents. And while my upbringing was unusually strict, evangelical, Anglo-Celtic, Southern, and decidedly middle class – certainly closer to Reagan’s upbringing than Bush’s – I have read enough about Bush’s posh and elitist but nonetheless sturdy and religious old Anglo-Saxon upbringing to recognize something resembling a kindred spirit.
Perhaps I even get him in a way that other Southerners of my generation perhaps don’t. In this part of the world, Ronald Reagan is a cultural and political icon, needless to say – the modern U.S. president who most embodies the political heart and soul of the conservative South, even though he was native-born Midwesterner, born in Tampico and raised in Dixon, Illinois.
Having been raised more more or less in a pragmatic Eisenhower Republican family – our family Republicanism was inherited from recalcitrant Southern Unionist ancestor – I perhaps understood Bush’s moderate conservatism in a way that many Southern newcomers to Republicanism did not, having cut their teeth on the ideological conservatism of Reagan.
Bush differed rather significantly from Reagan, both in temperament, culture and political conviction. Indeed, he represents one of American politics’ most unique presidential hybrids: someone simultaneously steeped in the values of the stodgy mandarin culture of New England and the rough, freewheeling entrepreneurial culture of Texas.
And while he made his fortune and much of his political legacy in the Lone Star State, I think he remained temperamentally and politically a member of the New England mandarin class.
And I think that this is at least part of the reason why he had such a rough go as president. We Americans, particularly Southerners, have never felt too comfortable with moderate-minded managerial types, especially those with New England roots. Within the full American historical and cultural context, that’s not surprising. We Americans are not citizens of an organic nation like our English or Canadian cousins but rather of a republic born of idealism and bloody revolution. And what holds true for Americans in general holds doubly true for those Americans with Back Country, Anglo-Celtic antecedents. That is why we tend to view decent, managerial technocrats like Bush with a measure of ambivalence.
In fact, I really believe that the American revolution released a kind of free-floating anxiety that has never been dispelled. We’ve never been able to forgo our fear that someone asleep at the wheel might – a moderate like Bush, perhaps – would compromise the ideals and the liberties we hold so dear as Americans. We’ve endured our share of moderate, managerial presidents, but in the hearts of millions of Americans, particularly Southerners and other Flyover Americans, is an abiding passion for fighters like Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, Ronald Reagan and, yes even Trump standing in the breach to fend off perceived threats to American liberties.
That is why so many Americans, particularly in my neck of the woods, are more inclined toward loudmouthed Trumps rather than to decent, well-meaning, moderate political figures like George Bush.