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.

Presidential: The Great Abstract

According to theSOI.com, a web based questionnaire used by Fortune 100 technology companies to identify their leaders’ Styles Of Influence™, people have four major internal scales that dictate how they interact with others: cognitive ideas, relational emotions, goal forcefulness and detail order. Each bucket of styles comes with its own range of impacts.

Those who score on the highest side of the cognitive scale are considered to be abstract thinkers. Concrete thinkers are on the other end of the same scale. The assessment states:

“An abstract person understands the importance of an idea intuitively from a principle or value-driven perspective. Because of this, they are more likely to grasp how one idea can affect another, changing the meaning of both…This person will tend to speak in abstractions and metaphors in order to inspire or motivate.”

Writers tend to be abstracts. Lawyers too. And innovators. They’re blue sky thinkers who can connect thoughts with ideas to weave a reality in their mind that can define a world that exists or one that needs to be created. I scored a five on the cognitive scale. It goes to five. It’s not a measure of intelligence. It’s how you think. Not how well. On the other end, for details, I’m a two. Which is why I couldn’t tell you where my keys are right now if you gave me a thousand dollars to do it without wandering around to any number of likely locations.

Abraham Lincoln was an abstract too. He existed almost entirely in the world of the big picture. He spoke incessantly in metaphors and stories. He almost never talked about a person without weaving them or their way of thought into a broader framework of a network of ideas.

Like Churchill, Lincoln had a savant like recall. From a young age, he would entertain whole parties late into the night by reciting, word for word, one of his favorite plays or chapters from his favorite books. He had the ability to keep an enormous amount of information in the front of his mind and recall it when it was most appropriate and attach it to something relevant and easily digested by the room.

Also, like the assessment’s description of abstracts, Lincoln had an unequaled grasp of the principles behind the ideas he toiled with and how they ran into and out of each other.

At Gettysburg, he lead with “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He called on the foundational ideals of our forefathers and linked them to the sacrifice of Gettysburg and even more broadly, the Civil War. He drove home the message that this effort was a continuation of the work of our founders that all agreed was virtuous.

It’s important to remember that the outcomes of that horrific war hadn’t been written into the textbooks then. And it hung more in the balance than most of us are comfortable with understanding. Less than a century after Jefferson wrote the words, the very notion of the viability of democracy and the principles of liberty were still in question. This America wasn’t permanent yet. Those tiring of war or politically opposed to the cause of Union or abolition needed to understand what was at stake; the very question of whether government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

The people of his time understood Lincoln’s abstract message, as has history. His ability to deliver it in a clear, succinct fashion in less words than I’ve taken to tell you about it was what made Lincoln so enormously effective. His mind, in a real and material sense, had a firmer grasp on the ideas of the moment than those who opposed him. And a way to express it so that all who heard, then and centuries since, could grasp what he wanted them to grasp.

He did all of this with no formal education. He taught himself to read. He passed the bar exam in Illinois when he was 27 and began to practice law.

In 1858, the uneducated upstart politician who had only held office as a one term congressmen a decade earlier took on Stephen Douglas, a titan of the Senate. Perhaps no instance in Lincoln’s life, or our history, shows more clearly the power of a superior mind. Douglas had been a member of the Senate for the better part of the past two decades and was a front-runner for the Democratic nomination for the 1860 Presidential election. Lincoln, was a nobody.

Imagine, if you can, the gravity of someone no one had ever heard of debating a Ted Kennedy or a Bob Dole and beating them so soundly on substance alone that it propelled him to national attention. Lincoln stood, awkward with his freakishly tall frame and ill-fitting clothing, delivering in his high-pitched voice words of heavy consequence.

Lincoln, on slavery in debate against Douglas:

“I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest”

Slavery is bad, not just because it’s bad for those in bondage. It’s bad for what it does to even good men. It’s bad for the soul of liberty. And it risks all that we are by its very existence.

Argue against that.

He forced the recognition, and eventual reconciliation that ideas we hold true and dear to our culture were at deep odds with the nature of our actions. And that great hypocrisy not only was present but would eventually undo all that was done that made us who we believed we were. It can’t be overstated that the substance of his mind and his words were judged against such unfair standards, yet still are preserved for all history to see. He was a once in a generation mind. At a once in a generation moment.

Lincoln started in a dirt floor in Kentucky, lost most elections he ever ran in and was the third choice on the first ballot for the 1860 Republican National Convention. He won on a later vote with most voting against their first choice’s rival, not for him. He ended up on Mount Rushmore. Carved into that great granite facade, if Lincoln looked to his right, he would find men who originated from wealth and privilege and education, yet had no greater impact on their country or the legacy of America than he did.

It is literally accurate to say that no man’s arc of existence bent so far from humble beginnings towards the great impact of justice for all time.

And it was all in his head.

The Prospect of Service

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Of the 20 Americans that have officially announced their candidacy for President of the United States for the 2016 election, three have served on active duty in the United States armed forces. One, Lindsey Graham (R) was a JAG (military for lawyer) in the Air Force. One, Rick Perry (R), was a cargo pilot in the post Vietnam era Air Force. One, Jim Webb (D), is a real life honest to goodness bona fide war hero, having been awarded the Navy Cross (one step down from the Medal of Honor) Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam. Which means that of those who have raised their hand to participate in the pursuit of our country’s highest office of public service, 15% of them have served in our armed forces; 5% in war.   Though that may seem low, and it certainly is relative to previous presidential races, it’s actually more than representative of our overall population base with respect to military service.   According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, presently, about 7% of Americans have ever served on active duty in the military. And so we should be somewhat satisfied by our turnout of candidates. Somehow it doesn’t feel that way though. Perhaps because we hold the office to a higher standard. Perhaps because we value military service differently than other vocations when it comes to presidentiality.   As usual though, if we take a look at the history behind it, we can gain some perspective on how much this really matters.

Does military service matter?  At the highest level, there’s an interesting pattern that makes logical sense when you take some time to think about it.   We’ve had three presidents who have served in the highest ranks during a time of war and have therefore met what we would consider to be the most relevant prior experience to being commander in chief. Washington, Grant and Eisenhower all were, in whatever historically appropriate capacity possible, the highest ranking officer engaged in the highest level of combat during our three most consequential armed conflicts. Of the 24 years those three men served as president, a total of 6 months was spent at war, the sole contribution to our war history being the 186 days it took for Ike to pull the plug on Korea. Now, there’s a case to be made that those men had seen war and therefore had no stomach for more of it. Which we know from their memoir’s is at least a little true. What probably played more of a factor was simple chronology though. Being “General of the Army” is not a young man’s game. So if you were doing it at the time of war, and you went on to become president, you did so in a very short period of time, within the scope of a decade in each case. We tend to steer clear of large scale war within the scope of the same generation if we can help it. And so the requirement for lofty military command to qualify a presidential candidate for the job is not one that history supports.

If we flip the question around and ask what was the prior military experience of our most effective commanders in chief, we get a somewhat surprising answer. For one, we actually didn’t have a president during our first important war, the American Revolution. So when we look at those who played critically tactical roles as President, the list is quite short. It includes two men with exactly zero days of active duty service in the military. Lincoln and FDR were, head and shoulders above the rest, the most important and successful commanders in chief to ever hold the office of President. When you think about the scope and scale of their burden, it’s remarkable all that they were able to accomplish. Lincoln waged war a stone’s throw from the White House personally transmitting orders to generals in the field from the War Department Telegraph room.   FDR engaged daily with a joint allied staff on strategy in Europe and the Pacific until the day he died. The decisions these men both made, regularly, are unequaled in their complexity and their impact on the nation and the world. Neither ever wore a uniform.

History makes a pretty strong case. Military service is a poor predictor of performance as commander in chief.  So does it matter at all? If not as a qualification to lead the military, then what does it tell us? Does it tell us a candidate is dedicated to a life of service? Perhaps, but to be honest, agree with their politics or not, the list of 20 or so names on this candidate list includes hundreds of years of public service not specific to the military. So, it’s not really about service either. But it is about something. To be clear its actually about two things.

First, it’s a validation that at some point in their life, a candidate has done something that took some grit. Of the three war-time deployments that I had, two were with what we’ll call elite units. The third, the one that I’m least likely to tell war stories about at parties, was with what we would call a “conventional” unit.   That deployment, by a country mile, was the one that absolutely beat me down the most. It was brutal relentless and absolutely representative of what most of our men and women in uniform experience when they deploy. So when we see someone who has served, we can say with confidence, that at some point in their lives, they lived through a truly trying experience. Which is something to benchmark them with when so much of everything else that we see out of them feels less genuine and more contrived. Military service is real. And there’s no way to hide from the “suck”. When you look at this field of 20, it definitely feels light on grit.  But maybe that’s just from where I’m sitting.

The other thing that prior military service does, and this is more relevant for war time service, is that it validates resiliency. Which is actually entirely different than being a hero. There’s something to the notion that heroism is less important than recovery. My experience during the 14 years of war that we’ve been engaged in is a fairly common one for those that served. I saw less “action” than those who served in the worst of it, yet more than those that managed to serve in more peripheral roles. Of the 20 or so months I spent in active war zones, I can clearly count two instances where I legitimately thought that I was going to die. Some level of danger and vigilance were constants but those moments where I actually thought that I wasn’t getting out of it were rare. And frankly, the reason I did was because of luck and other people, not heroism or skill. The fall out of those events was not necessarily contributory to a life well lived either. That which does not kill us…sometimes leaves us with nightmares, anxiety and a propensity to self medicate. There’s something important that follows though. We’re beginning to talk about this more these days but we used to ignore it entirely. It’s the recovery that matters.  The richest part of the human experience is the walk back to the path our life was on when something knocks us off of it. And so for men like James Webb, it’s less about the citation from his Navy Cross, which I encourage you to read, and more about what he no doubt went through in the years after he returned from war to live the worthy and full life that he has. It’s not that you can’t get those experiences without serving. War simply tends to provide those that experience it with more acute opportunities to survive.

With all this in mind, what should we be considering when it comes to military service and our presidential candidates? I think it’s the following question. What did a candidate do with the prospect of military service? For some, because of the time in which they lived and the paths that their lives have taken, the opportunity to serve simply never materialized as a serious consideration. And that’s ok. Lincoln and FDR show that. But for others, the prospect of service was a question that couldn’t be avoided, like those of the “Greatest Generation”. Of the eight presidents that held office after WWII, all of them actively served in some capacity in the military during the war. A little closer to home for this election, there’s the question of Vietnam service.  What did a candidate do with prospect of serving in Vietnam? Did they pursue it? Did they leave it to fate? Or did they run from it? I think it’s fair to put the last of those three choices into the “not suitable” bucket. But that’s just my opinion. And it’s an opinion informed by asking that one critical question of what a candidate did with the prospect of service. The snapshot in time that will be the 2016 election is as such that we ought to be slightly fine with the lean yield of the answer to that question. But the future will likely hold a very different outcome. Here’s why.

My generation of service member has been at war a long time. For many of us, we spent our whole professional careers at war. I was deployed when the war started and finished my active duty career months before the end of combat operations in Iraq.   Our chance to participate in a new life of service is coming. And when it does, the question of the prospect of service will become much more important. My generation has been knocked far off of life’s path and for those of us fortunate to make the long journey back to it, there will be a calling to serve again. We’ve seen much, sacrificed more and fear little. And our time is coming. So when 2024 rolls around or maybe even 2020, ask yourself that question with regard to your candidate of choice.  What did they do with the prospect of service?   Because what it tells of my generation is important.  And we’re getting closer to the door every day.