A Word About George H.W. Bush

For personal reasons, I was unable to post in a more timely manner on the passing of one of our most respected Old Money political leaders.

We’ve profiled the late president George Herbert Walker Bush on this blog before. As many have commented in the media, his passing (combined with the passing of John McCain) marks the end of an era. He served his country in the military, in appointed positions, and in elected offices with competence, dignity, and integrity.

Until I can settle and gather my thoughts–and some revealing anecdotes–on Mr. Bush, I will leave it to others.

Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria had this to say about the WASP culture (what we here refer to as Old Money culture) that the 41st president grew up in:

The death of George H.W. Bush has occasioned a fair amount of nostalgia for the old American establishment, of which Bush was undoubtedly a prominent member. It has also provoked a heated debate among commentators about that establishment, whose membership was determined largely by bloodlines and connections. You had to be a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant to ascend to almost any position of power in the United States until the early 1960s. Surely, there is nothing good to say about a system that was so discriminatory toward everyone else?

Actually, there is. For all its faults — and it was often horribly bigoted, in some places segregationist and almost always exclusionary — at its best, the old WASP aristocracy did have a sense of modesty, humility and public-spiritedness that seems largely absent in today’s elite. Many of Bush’s greatest moments — his handling of the fall of communism, his decision not to occupy Iraq after the first Gulf War, his acceptance of tax increases to close the deficit — were marked by restraint, an ability to do the right thing despite enormous pressure to pander to public opinion.

But, and here is the problem, it is likely these virtues flowed from the nature of that old elite. The aristocracy was secure in its power and position, so it could afford to think about the country’s fate in broad terms, looking out for the longer term, rising above self-interest — because its own interest was assured. It also knew that its position was somewhat accidental and arbitrary, so its members adhered to certain codes of conduct — modesty, restraint, chivalry, social responsibility.

If at this point you think I am painting a fantasy of a world that never existed, let me give you a vivid example. On the Titanic’s maiden voyage, its first-class cabins were filled with the Forbes 400 of the age. As the ship began to sink and it became clear there were not enough lifeboats for everyone, something striking took place. As Wyn Wade recounts, the men let the women and children board the boats. In first class, about 95 percent of the women and children were saved, compared with only about 30 percent of the men. While, of course, first-class passengers had easier access to the boats, the point remains that some of the world’s most powerful men followed an unwritten code of conduct, even though it meant certain death for them.

This historical example reveals the heart of the Old Money philosophy. It’s a philosophy that Mr. Bush was born into, and did his best to honor through his lifetime.

Well done, sir.

  • BGT

14 thoughts on “A Word About George H.W. Bush

  1. Nice post, although, with Sen. Bob Dole, saluting Bush casket, the era is not over yet. Plus, McCain was not Greatest Generation, he was Vietnam. A warrior nonetheless of course.

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  2. Watching the funeral services and the televised specials about the life of President Bush, I also felt so much. I think he was the first President I was aware of (I was born in ’81), and I can’t quite believe the contrast between his behavior and where the nation is today. Anyway, I fully understand and appreciate your restraint in writing about this, and it’s interesting that you highlight the wisdom of his own restraint. Growing up, I read my parents’ newsmagazines (before the rise of the internet) , and the articles were well-written and thoughtful, rather than just an immediate reaction.

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  3. Hello Byron,

    I was hoping you would comment on GHWB and am pleased you have done so. I am also aware of Fareed Zakaria’s comments and heard him make them on TV, here in the US.

    While I am not an American I have followed your politics for years and President Bush Senior was a personal ‘hero’ of mine. I was always taken by his modesty and humility. Yet simultaneously of such enormous ability. Nowadays it all seems to be about me, me, me.

    No one is perfect but so-called WASPs, when they have addressed their own shortcomings, can stand tall without the need to apologize because they have planted some very deep roots. Those roots will one day, when people come to their senses, bear abundant fruit.

    I look forward to future writings about ‘41’. Genuinely missed.

    Regards,
    David.

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  4. Thank you for an excellent and moving post. Perhaps, as Beatrix noted earlier, the captains and the kings depart, but they have left their examples for all of us to emulate. You do not need to be a traditional WASP to appreciate the virtues of modesty, humility, public service (and private service, too), genuine patriotism (not jingoism) and respect for tradition. Even in today’s appalling political sphere, the WASP outlook on life and behavior can still serve us well. Mr. Bush was a sterling example of this, and his personal and public demeanor and character go a long way to explain the respect shown on his passing. With regards to E.M. Forster, “On they go, an invincible army, yet not a victorious one.”

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  5. Dear Mr. Tully,
    Thank you for a thoughtful and touching post about a public figure I am just a bit to young to remember. Most of what I know about President Bush, I am learning now. Fascinating character study. All I knew before were a few policy facts, political achievements, and a controversy or two. Thinking about the personal characteristics of accomplished people really strikes me as important (especially as a mother). I am looking forward to reading your book!
    Best wishes,
    Rachel

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