More than one congregant has asked me this week about President Bush, "Didn't you say once that he was your favorite President?"
Yes, I did. And he is. My favorite from my lifetime. I deeply respected and admired him and this week have mourned his passing. When on Saturday morning my husband informed me of the death, I began to weep and our preschool-aged son consoled me "That's sad." Over the last few days I've shared stories with our son about George Herbert Walker Bush.
I grew up in a small town in northeastern Oklahoma where most local races were settled in the Democratic primary. My family were New Deal Democrats like most of the people around us. The only Republicans we knew were liberal Episcopalians.
I had always had a fascination with politics. Mom tells the story of my backing Jimmy Carter in the 1976 race as a toddler--I think it was because he was a peanut farmer and I loved peanut butter. But it was finally as the 1988 primaries loomed that I became focused on presidential politics. I followed that race very closely, at the beginning liking such candidates as Gary Hart, Paul Simon, Jack Kemp, and Al Gore.
That was a great race to follow, especially as I was just beginning to form my political opinions. There were 6 major candidates on both sides, and particularly in the GOP they each represented a wing of the party. Bush, of course, emerged as the nominee. I watched almost gavel-to-gavel coverage of both conventions that summer and weighed considerations between Governor Dukakis and Vice President Bush before deciding to support Bush.
This was almost anathema to my Democrat family. My Mom told me I couldn't be a Republican because we weren't rich.
That autumn in our speech class Mrs. Webster assigned as a project that we create a scrapbook to follow the election. I poured myself into that project and produced a final result that shocked Mrs. Webster in its detail and thoroughness, far exceeding the scope of the assignment. Every day I poured through multiple papers and grabbed the major weekly magazines all to clip for the scrapbook which kept growing in size.
Also that autumn our speech class put on a mock presidential debate for a junior high assembly followed by a mock election among the students. I was chosen to represent Vice President Bush, Ronnie Maple was Governor Dukakis, and Lance Reece was the moderator. I remember that my main point was that Bush was the most qualified person to ever run for the office. Bush won our mock election.
And, so, at 14, I became a Republican. But a Bush Republican. A moderate, New England, liberal Episcopalian sort of Republican. And just at a point when the culture was shifting and that sort of Republican was about to decline and the place I had grown up would, in short order, become a bastion of Right Wing, Christian fundamentalist politics. I assume most of the liberal Episcopalians in Miami, Oklahoma these days are not Republicans. And I left the party in 2004 for its repeated hypocrisies.
Bush's served as President during my high school years. And I watched in admiration as all the accomplishments were achieved, particularly in foreign policy. Many of my friends were still old school Democrats while others were these new Evangelical Republicans, so I found myself often defending Bush from attacks from the right and the left. I loathed Newt Gingrich and the despicable ways he attacked Bush.
But I also noticed the weaknesses and failures, and have appreciated this week reading those criticisms as well as the honors.
In 1992 I could finally vote, and I voted for George H. W. Bush, despite the fact that many friends my age were supporting Bill Clinton. Clinton repulsed me. My roommate Matt Cox and I hung our American flag upside down as a sign of the nation in distress when the networks called the election for Clinton. A few days later the university president sent the president of the College Republicans to ask us to turn it back rightside up.
I simply couldn't believe that a President who had accomplished what Bush had done and once enjoyed a 91% approval rating was losing to this inexperienced person of bad character, even if the economy was in a mild recession. But I had also watched Bush squirm through the debates, clearly a figure from a different era, as politics and the media were changing (not for the better, of course).
My admiration has continued. I read Bush and Scowcroft's book on the history of the administration, and Jon Meacham's good biography.
Bush ran one of the most ethical administrations, firing people at even the hint of scandal. He hired experts who were themselves admirable people, highly skilled. My respect for folks like Scowcroft and Baker is as high as that for Bush.
But he was also highly ambitious and that led to a vicious 1988 campaign. I didn't fully grasp how nasty it was at the time, but did upon later reflection. He could at times be cynical and self-interested. He and the members of the old elite he surrounded himself with were tone-deaf to many things, most notoriously racial issues, HIV/AIDS, and the LGBT community.
Yet he also oversaw the largest expansion of civil rights in our history with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. He acted to eliminate acid rain, our greatest environmental achievement (remember he ran in 88 as "the Environmental President"). His budget compromise laid the groundwork for the economic successes of the 1990's. Sadly his very good education bill languished in Congress. And these are just among his domestic accomplishments.
But what matters most is that he was a person of character. His character was rich and complex, including significant flaws and weaknesses, but also great strengths. So watching yesterday's funeral, I thought of Hannah Arendt, who reveals that goodness has depth and dimension. Evil is shallow and little.
What we saw yesterday was a celebration of character, with depth and complexity. George Herbert Walker Bush was a good man.