For those of us used to the bare-knuckle brawling of modern politics, the funeral last week of George H.W. Bush seemed like a message from a different time, an age when decorum and ideals mattered. That was certainly the case with the elder Bush himself, who volunteered to fight in World War II as a teenager and lived a live of service to his country.
It provokes powerful pangs of nostalgia, even though those very pangs can occasionally deceive.
After all, decorum itself cannot run a government or society. It’s a way of behaving, one that’s certainly more pleasant than rabble-rousing, but devoid of intrinsic content. And the elder Bush wasn’t afraid to bare his own knuckles when it came to political races.
But holding ideals, though, that truly matters. And that’s where Bush and the distinguished statesman who preceded him, John McCain, distinguished themselves. Each one was willing to make decisions and calls that might harm them within their party or with voters — simply because those decisions and calls were the right thing to do.
Think about Bush agreeing to sign a budget bill that included tax increases, ultimately reducing deficits and setting the country on the path of the booming 1990s. Or for that matter, his signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In McCain’s care, consider his sponsorship of campaign finance legislation, his vote against ending the Affordable Care Act and his challenge to a voter who tried to suggest that then-candidate Barack Obama wasn’t from this country.
Both men understood that government service had a higher purpose than simply winning elections (although that was certainly important and worth twisting a fact or three). They understood that real governing requires compromises with opponents. They understood that real governing involves engaging with the world as it really is, not as depicted by an ideological echo chamber.
Bush paid a huge political price for his budget apostasy. He served only a single term as president, losing his re-election bid to the more pliable and compromised Bill Clinton. He was, for many years, a figure of fun, remembered as much for inspiring a Dana Carvey impression than accomplishing anything of import as president.
But as decades passed and our national politics degraded, Bush (and McCain) came to represent something more — veterans who tried, whatever their shortcomings, to make the country better.
They deserve their tributes. And while the politeness and unity on display at their funerals was impressive, it’s ultimately to the devotion shown by each man to our national project that should be remembered — and emulated.