Updated: Dec 18, 2019
No doubt George H. W. Bush would have testily rejected Noam Chomsky’s blistering condemnation of all post-WWII American presidents. I can almost envision him (or is it Dana Carvey?) doing this. After all, the assertion that all of them, by the Nuremberg Principles, merited hanging was put forth during the tenure of his own administration.
I can grudgingly agree with Chomsky without succumbing to hatred or disgust when it comes to Bush I. This is not simply because it is so easy to point to cruder examples of presidential lawlessness. Nor do I want to use the word “grace” either to allude to the senior Bush’s vaunted civility and capacity to laugh at himself. I would also like to avoid employing the word (exclusively) in its Christian religious sense. Still, it is impossible to escape the Christian (perhaps Judeo Christian?) conviction that all of us are nothing more than loathsome sinners who under any dreaded regime of purifying justice deserve nothing better than the searing agony of eternal abandonment.
I want to try to use the word “grace” in the most secular sense possible which means acknowledging all its complexities and paradox. I simply do not believe we can condemn him (as opposed to his actions which individually deserve their own plaudits and denunciations) without diminishing ourselves – if only because that type of condemnation threatens to push us into a false position of blamelessness. At the same time, to not enumerate the omissions and brutalities which he, like us, inherited and perpetuated is also a betrayal of all of us – and the hopes that we can gradually and collectively transcend the worst elements of our nature.
On this day of his internment, we should remind ourselves that we all struggle under these contradictions. It may be a false comfort to imagine that a man like George H. W. Bush might have struggled to the utmost of his ability to appreciate these quandaries in a way that still (and perhaps perpetually) eludes us as a culture. Still, to deny any possibility he was not sincerely humbled by this incarnate spiritual challenge is actually to assert our own moral vacuum.