The Niceness of George I

Updated: Dec 18, 2019

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world . . .” -- George Bernard Shaw

The value of decorous civility receives urgent new emphasis with every development from (or revelation about) the current administration*. But even the most perennially disgruntled among us should always have been at least dimly aware that politesse is ever so much more than the complacent visage of conservatism and privilege. Of course, "niceness", that often absolutely genuine human decency, was not George H.W. Bush's only virtue. His famously eminent resume was also nothing other than an emblem of competence. True as it may be that his birth offered him opportunities not afforded to everyone, he undertook the responsibilities of his many high offices with an admirable sense of determination to be both effective and accountable to the system he inherited (such as it was).

As a child, I made my acquaintance with the future president on TV. He was the first US emissary, sent by Nixon, to the Peoples' Republic of China. I remember how carefully he explained to me through the interviewing journalist (Mike Wallace?) without pandering or condescension, the nature of his groundbreaking mission. I was impressed. At the age of 13, though already an inveterate Democrat ("Before FDR," my grandfather would say, "We were like slaves."), I was naive enough to at least be open to the idea of bi-partisanship. With something of the same mindset, I recall being vaguely reassured when he took charge of the CIA following the Church and Pike Committee revelations. Before he joined Reagan's ticket, I admired the acuity of the term "voodoo economics" to describe the latest incarnation of the trickledown theory, now called "supply-siderism".

Politeness helps us get along. It also greases the way for "going along", and if George H. W. Bush "went along" with Reagan, he was not alone. If his public record demonstrated he was doing this at least somewhat against his better judgement, he was still in plenty of good company. It is quite significant that Mr. Bush was the final World War II veteran to serve as president. His generation went through fire and hell to learn the value of cooperation and faith in a mission larger than the bulk of our differences. And his generation accomplished a lot in the vital, and often bipartisan, struggle to realize the promise of democracy. The Americans with Disabilities Act is a significant contribution to the stirring progress made toward affording equal civil rights to every citizen during the last half of the twentieth century. Bush deserves everlasting credit for supporting a ban on assault weapons, and his letter of resignation to the NRA remains a shining example of a brand of decency and integrity which too many still irresponsibly ignore. It should be remembered that he signed a bill raising the minimum wage and strove, mostly credibly, to be the "environmental president". Though no one comes close to matching Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush's conduct (with Bill Clinton as his bi-partisan wingman) after his presidency is another testament to his abiding goodwill (on a personal level).

Whether being bi-partisan or not, there's no question that President Bush was an "establishment guy". And if being an essential leading advocate of the massive system known as the United States of America was sometimes (or often) in conflict with his inclination to be a decent human being, this is something all citizens of all parties must strive to understand if true democracy is ever to be realized.

My title "The Niceness of George I" is not meant to be an ironic pointer to any character failings of this man whose near-universally acknowledged good manners should be recognized, especially in these times, as a signal of strength, not weakness - and of generosity, perhaps much more than any patrician exclusivity. 

The "bipartisan failures" I want to point out are those of the system which he nominally led and which still shapes so much of all our hopes and plans and fears. One of the many reasons Bush lost the White House to Bill Clinton was the resurgence of movement conservativism. "Read my lips. No new taxes!" was an epithet hurled scornfully back at him by those who would brand him as a "promise breaker" instead of a statesman willing to make necessary compromises to avoid a government shutdown. It's worthwhile to pause here to contrast the "conservative" intolerance of Bush's "failure" with their seemingly infinite indulgence toward the abominations of our current president*.

A person's "character", in the most emblematic sense of the word, is as much a reflection of how he contends with his weaknesses as it is how he brandishes his virtues and strengths. The same goes for entities we call "nations". Included among the inherent challenges of the United States are racism and the permanent war economy which fuels and which is also driven by what Eisenhower presciently termed "the military-industrial complex." Both of these are so ingrained into our national character and institutions that too many of us fail to - or refuse to - recognize their existence never mind their "character" as disgraceful (potentially fatal) flaws.

It is quite possible that the vast condescension known as "History" might someday portray Bush I as either heroically or haplessly presiding over the apex of the Pax Americana and the start of a slow, but soon to accelerate, decline into mediocracy or chaos - or something fascistically worse. But I think it is fair to Mr. Bush's inherent patriotic decency to use the event of his passing to focus the systemic nature of the United States with as much attention to its ongoing failures as to its nearly endless potential.

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world [ . . .] Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”    -- George Bernard Shaw

The US military industrial economy with its endless war economy is an ongoing global scourge generated by the Second World War in which Bush was simply a daring, but young, officer. How churlish it would be to fault George H. W. Bush for failing, in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, to seize upon and promote the idea of a "peace dividend" even if one were to condemn Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama in equal measures. The image of his son, George W, standing atop the smoldering wreckage of the twin towers in 2001 New York can fairly be used as an argument of the prescience for keeping our armed forces girded to battle a '"war on terrorism" rather than investing in human capital and peaceful infrastructure. But it is equally fair to point to trimp and the role of an incoherent surge of disaffected authoritarian populism as signal evidence that our system abjectly failed then to seize upon a necessary opportunity offered by the Soviet collapse.  We certainly continue in this same blind failure even now. This failure belongs to all of us because there were potential leaders then who did try to point the way, and we collectively ignored them.  If we put too much faith in establishment Democrats, we are likely to continue in this collective blindness. 

Perhaps, in the not too distant future, there will be an American leader who seizes upon the malaise (Yes, Jimmy Carter. You were right.) that bred trimpulism and the imminent catastrophes represented by anthropogenic global climate change to build a substantially new system where the permanent war economy is displaced to a large extent by a Green Revolution. This would be a revolution that valorizes ordinary human welfare as the pace of automation increases. It would acknowledge the entire planet as the relatively closed and fragile (at least with regard to our own survival needs) system which we have learned through hard experience that it is. This is not impossible and, with each passing year, it requires ever less of what was once called "the vision thing". If the spirit of someone like George H. W. Bush were ever to regret anything about the emergence of such a new leader, he would keep it to himself, but that quiet regret would very honorably be based on the credible conviction that he always had the metal, but that we, the people had not called upon it in his time.

This is not the time to be churlish about the crushing failures of George H. W. Bush or any other past leader, alive or dead. Yes, we will probably always need leaders to elevate and to bring crashing down. But, as our times may be making increasingly clear, to carp on the shortcomings of our "great ones" overmuch may be becoming less churlish and childish than it is suicidal. In any event, we owe it to ourselves and to posterity to contribute to and support as much as possible systems where "going along" is less obviously a pact with injustice and, even perhaps, the death of our species.

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.”    -- George Bernard Shaw

All progress, may indeed, depend upon unreasonable men and woman. But compare donald j trimp to George Herbert Walker Bush. Decency on its own is quite liable to disappoint, but unreasonableness itself is rarely inspirational, never mind productive.