BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON | DEC 6, 2018
My education in politics and government began in earnest working at the White House and mostly on Capitol Hill in the generational orbit of Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush 41 and Congressional leaders Rhodes, Michel, O’Neill, Foley, Wright, Baker, Byrd, and Dole, all of the “greatest generation.”
Seven of them served in the military during World War II, three of them—Dole, Michel, and Bush—had harrowing experiences in combat that shaped the rest of their lives.
What distinguished them from generations to follow was that most of them—but not all—had in common a strong belief that governing could only be effective in an atmosphere civil enough for opposing sides to reach consensus. They relished vigorous and contentious debate, but never let it get personal, and they engaged in tactics that would have passed muster with the Marquess of Queensberry. They knew when to put down the swords and lift the plowshares.
They were good tutors in the exercise of power for a whole generation, and good practitioners of the kind of politics and governance essential to a functioning Republic. They distinguished between campaigning and governing, between projecting the right perception and in the final analysis, making the right decisions, whether they conformed to the perceptions or deviated from them.
We boomers were reminded of that time and those leaders, as the nation bid farewell to President George H.W. Bush this week. He was as so many described him, an icon of the human and political values that have always defined the great American character, what we hope for in those we choose to exercise leadership on our behalf.
George H.W. Bush suffered excruciating defeats, personally and politically, made more painful by his own sensibilities and the tough treatment he got from the media and adversaries. Rare for a politician, when mistakes were made he blamed himself. In victory he shared credit.
As former Senator Alan Simpson said at his funeral he “was a man of great humility. Those who travel the high road of humility in Washington are never bothered by heavy traffic.”
His successes, however, far, far exceeded his failures. He exercised great courage in wartime. Decades later, as President he exercised both courage and common sense in maneuvering through the downfall of the Soviet Union, which could have turned disastrous with one small misstep. He liberated Kuwait from the clutches of Saddam Hussein by assembling an historical international coalition under the auspices of the United Nations. He helped guide the reunification of Germany, which then Chancellor Helmut Kohl said would not have occurred successfully without him. The German flag flew at half staff this week along with ours. He returned democracy to Panama.
His record of accomplishment in just four years working with a Democratic Congress was remarkable: catastrophic health care and entitlement reform, both in a budget deal that, along with a recession that ended three months before the election, cost him his presidency; the Clean Air Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, the farm and crime bills. He prompted and signed more legislation than any President other than Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, according to his chief of staff, John Sununu.
His most valued contribution to our nation and national life, however, was his decency, his love of country, and genuine care and concern for the people he served.
He was the real deal.
And there is no greater testament to that truth than the five current and former presidents who were seated in the front row of the funeral at National Cathedral and the five vice presidents seated behind them. The days of mourning produced not just a flood but a tsunami of praise and admiration from liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, commoners and kings. His life and his legacy will be among the most enduring examples of how to do it right, of any leader in modern times, and it was obvious to all but his harshest, bitterest, blinded critics.
The media’s treatment of his memorial services and the rich reservoir of tributes paid to him has been respectful and appropriate, with some relatively isolated exceptions. The vast panoply of coverage has been positive and even heartwarming, capturing for all of us to experience that atmosphere of national calm and collective grief that sometimes escorts great national leaders to their final resting place.
Such treatment by the media frames events and circumstances, in a way that restores for a time, critical balance, commonality, and civility in the national psyche. It is good to be yanked back from the anger, stridency, insufferable arrogance that have become so palpable in our political discourse and behavior in part because of the obsessive amounts of attention paid them, especially now when institutions on which we have long depended for stability and balance are victims of it themselves.
The aura of unity, mutual respect, responsible citizenry, natural compassion, and commonality that rises to the surface in times like this is all too fleeting. But there are no hermetically sealed pickle jars for capture of such feelings, not now. They will be gone before the first blades of grass sprout above the resting place of Mr. Bush.
The quick suction of the kinder and gentler spirit from our politics is so predictable. The New York Times didn’t even wait for burial. In his obituary, the paper inexplicably repeated old accusations, long ago proven false, about a silly incident in a grocery store check-out line that supposedly exposed Mr. Bush as an entitled East Coast elitist (really humorous coming from the New York Times).
It was followed the next day by a separate piece by Peter Baker, playing the left’s obligatory race card, linking Bush to the racial turmoil today, based primarily on an ugly campaign ad. The Baker piece wasn’t even original. It corresponded with a similar narrative advanced by USA Today, which seemed to be spun from a Politico piece by a liberal New Jersey college professor who claimed that “Bush was the most overrated president since Dwight Eisenhower and possibly of all time.”
That level of ignorance and the gross mismanagement and manipulation of historical truth coming from a teacher makes you fear for students, especially those who already think Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court.
ABC News coverage surprisingly featured Donna Brazile, the former Democratic National Committee chairwoman canned recently by CNN, who in 1988 stooped lower than the notorious Willie Horton ad by repeating despicable allegations of sexual misconduct, demanding publicly that “George Bush owes it to the American people to fess up.” She was Deputy Campaign Manager for Gov. Michael Dukakis, Bush’s 1988 opponent. To Dukakis’ credit, she was fired.
How do we claw our way back from the inevitable downward slide of our civil discourse and bad behavior, our belief structure and values, and our respectful treatment of one another, all essentials to governing ourselves effectively? Is it only during funerals and special holidays that our better nature prevails for a few days, over less noble impulses that influence us for months and years?
If we cannot look to national leaders in politics, in the media and other public and private institutions for models of model behavior, then where do we turn?
The destination is not far. Easy commute. It’s within ourselves, as George Bush tried to show us; not always succeeding, but always trying. American character is, to use a Bush term, inculcated within us. He found it.
The rest of us should just ignore the distractions, and keep looking.
Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and three grandchildren.