Some Thoughts on George H.W. Bush

Our lives aren’t stories.

Not the way we like to think they are; like three act plays following a tight narrative as the twists and turns of decades come to some culminating end. Our lives are a long–hopefully–messy series of events, decisions, actions and coincidences. It’s more mess than story. Yet we tell the stories. Because we have to. One finds little motivation in living a slightly better mess.

We think of the stories of our lives, before they play out or as we look back and reminisce. As hopes. As fears. As regrets. But the story is never really experienced in real time. And the true cause and effect of things is lost in the complex systems of the mess.

So much of that question, how did our life play out, is answered by the grand cosmic equation of chance. Privilege. Or circumstance. Luck, if you believe in that sort of thing. We’re not really interested in the truth about how much of any single human life is determined by chance.

It’s a scary thought.

Odds are, the greatest quarterback that ever lived wasn’t born in America in the 50 years that it would have mattered. So no one knows his name. The difference in the story we tell about him and Johnny Unitas has little to do with the type of men they were. And everything to do with the times and places into which they were born. And so the question to ask, the one that matters, when one passes from this state of being to the next, is not what type of story one’s life tells.

The question to ask, is what they chose to do with the life they had.

Yesterday, the government of the United States of America shut down to honor the passing of George H.W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States. The story of his life has been told countless times since his passing this weekend.

He was born, by chance, at a time and place that would give him a life of privilege during the Great Depression to the type of family that gave their children three last names because there were three last names worth telling. He lived the life of a naval aviator during the greatest naval battles in history. He lived a life of a politician during the darkest hours and greatest triumphs of Western of Democracy. And he lived the life of elder statesmen during his son’s presidency.

This is the story of George H.W. Bush’s life. The chronology reads more like an American Tolstoy novel than a mortal life. The timeline, though, is not the measure of a man. The measure is the choices he made during the time that he had.

George Herbert Walker Bush chose, when most the rest of his countrymen were going to war, to be an aviator, the youngest in the fleet, during a time when single engine prop planes were taking off and landing on wooden deck aircraft carriers.

He chose to enter a life of service in politics.

He chose to vote for integration of schools as a Republican Congressman from Houston in 1968.

He chose to run clean campaigns against his opponents.

He chose to take the roles Presidents Nixon and Ford asked of him; random, thankless roles. Ambassador to the UN. Chairmen of the Republican National Committee. Director of an embattled, CIA. And he chose his reason for doing so. Because the president asked him to.

He chose hard, unpopular decisions as president that saved the legacy of his predecessor Ronald Reagan, who made no such hard, unpopular choices. It cost him a second term as president.

He chose to go to war liberate Kuwait. He chose not to invade Iraq.

He chose to be loyal to one woman his whole life, and never embarrass her.

He chose to be a present father to his children.

Nixon thought Bush was the perfect Vice President, but not the right man to be president. Of Nixon, Bush said, “Deep in his heart, he feels I’m soft. Not tough enough, not willing to do the ‘gut job’ that his political instincts tell him need to be done.” That opinion of George H. W. Bush was held by a man whose downfall was predicated by a weakness of character and an inability to confront any of his aids face to face because of a crippling fear of personal conflict.

That which Nixon lacked, Bush had in spades. And our nation benefitted greatly from his brief but immensely important presidency.

The story of Bush, relative to Reagan, was that he was a “wimp.” The reality was that Bush chose to do the things in real life that Reagan put make up on, wore costumes and pretended to do as an actor. Even as president.

Such is the problem of stories. And such is the risk when we believe them instead of view the players in them for how they used the agency they had, often at great personal cost, to forward what they believed in.

It’s hard to find people who had much negative to say about George H.W. Bush as a man. This was true before he passed this weekend. He chose to live a life of decency and fairness, at some cost to power, reputation and legacy.

He loved his family, his God and his country.  Not just with his words. But with how he chose to live his life.

I’m not sure there’s much else to this thing. And there’s something beautiful in that.