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.

Settling for Different

In a little less than six weeks this past winter, the Republic of Korea, South Korea as we say it here in the States, impeached their president and arrested the CEO of Samsung, the country’s largest corporation because of an influence peddling and bribery scandal that involved both.  It was the South Korean equivalent of impeaching Donald Trump and arresting Apple’s Tim Cook. It was kind of a big deal.

One might think that the sacking of arguably the nation’s two most important people would signal deep societal problems in South Korea. Nothing could further from the truth though. What South Korea just signaled to the world, in addition to their strong market driven economy and highly inclusive democracy, is that they are a government of laws, for the people. And that no one is bigger than the cause. And no one is safe from the consequences of upsetting it.

As recently as 1974, in America, many of us felt the same way. While Watergate was a personal failure for Richard Nixon and a handful of others close to the scandal, the accountability exacted on the nation’s highest office was one of our our great triumphs of democracy. The most powerful man in the world lost his power because he covered up the fact that a few men broke into a rival campaign office during an election that he won by one of the largest landslide margins in American history. The crime, literally, was an inconsequential action that had no tangible impact on a single outcome. But the intent threatened democracy. And in America, that meant you had to go. We were after all, a government of  laws, for the people.

We’ve been at that promise for 240 years. And though we think of ourselves as a “new people” relative to Europe and Asia, our government is old. As standing democracies go, no one is older. We Americans have had a long time to game the system. And though it’s still pretty good at enabling life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for many Americans, our government gets used to do quite a bit more than that these days. Corporations use it to seek rent. The media uses it to sell advertising. Individuals use it to grab or broker power. And as those groups get better and better at those things over time, the promise of why we started, begins to weaken. Until it weakens to the point where we’re no longer confident it will do what we’ve sacrificed so much to insist that it does.

When you invest the level of resources in and grant the broad powers to an entity like the United States Federal Government, a loss of confidence isn’t a small problem. It’s a dire one. Which is where this really starts to get a little fuzzy right now. Because I just said that the system is rigged. And that it needs a shock to it to change. And my argument is going to get confusing for many of you when I say the next thing. Donald Trump cannot continue to lead our government behaving the way that he is now.

One of the great risks of upsetting the status quo in government is that you replace it with something worse. My great critique of the candidacy of Donald Trump and then his presidency is that one does not generally learn how to serve others after they sit down at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. And what little trust we have left in our government is that even if the people we trust it to can’t do enough good, we, the people still hold enough power to keep them from doing too much bad.

When you fire the Director of the FBI while his organization is actively investigating your campaign for collusion with a foreign power, the optic alone, is enough to break that trust. When the Attorney General recuses himself from the investigation because he’s a part of it, then actively interviews candidates to lead the organization that conducts it, that doesn’t help either. It’s starting to feel less and less like the executive branch of our government believes that it answers to the people.  Or at a minimum, they don’t care if it appears that way. Both are unacceptable.

Different isn’t the same as better. The American standard, is better. Settling for different means that you’re comfortable with worse. And I’m not. The world is watching. And they’ve been waiting a long time for the American people to feel this bad about their government.

In Search of Elliot and Archibald

On May 18, 1973, the United States Senate began nationally televised hearings on Watergate.

Incoming Attorney General-designate Elliot Richardson, recently appointed by Republican President Richard Nixon, assigned former solicitor general Archibald Cox to serve as the Justice Department’s special prosecutor for the investigation. The rest, as they say, is history. 478 days later, amidst mounting evidence that he himself broke the law by authorizing illegal activities against the Democratic National Committee, Richard Milhous Nixon became the only man to resign the office of President of the United States of America.

At the time that the Senate Committee launched their hearings and Cox began his investigation, there was no public evidence that implicated President Nixon in those illegal activities. The election, held the previous November, was won by Nixon in one of the great landslides in presidential election history. He took just under two-thirds of the popular vote, a tally impossible to explain by any illegal activities. But he broke the law. And then he tried to cover it up. So he had to go.

By all other respects, Nixon was, at a minimum, a serviceable executive.

The most powerful man in the world broke a law that had no measurable impact on his claim to office or the effectiveness of his administration.

Still he lost power.

Not through force of violence or activity outside the rule of law. But because the institutions that firmly stood in place to limit his power insisted that he lose it. There was a legislative branch that acted independently of political goal. There was a judiciary and law enforcement entities that insisted on seeing it through. There was a free press that spoke truth to power. And there were Americans of character and principle in positions of authority.

Watergate was the application of the rule of law. Might did not make right. There were limits to power. And we saw them in action.

On October 20th, 1973, it came to a head on what’s since been called, the “Saturday Night Massacre”.  With mounting pressure and evidence piling up against him, Nixon ordered Attorney General Richardson to fire the special prosecutor Cox. Richardson refused.

He was fired.

His immediate replacement William Ruckleshaus also refused and resigned. Eventually, a third, Robert Bork, carried out Nixon’s order.

The damage had been done though. Within a year, Congress passed the articles of impeachment. And Nixon was gone.

There have been and always will be inappropriate people who inappropriately seek power. There will always be outside powers looking to interfere in our wellbeing as a nation. But what has made us uniquely great, what has delivered 55 peaceful transfers of power and 2 percent per capita economic growth for 240 years, is the institutions and functions of government that respond to them.

The great risk of our times, is that perhaps now, they can’t. Or they won’t.

We’re about to inaugurate someone who has held no position of government in his life and can scarcely point to a single aspect of service in seventy years; with suspect business dealings and personal behavior.

But he’s not the real risk.

The real risk is the Americans standing next to him and the institutions charged to check him that scare me the most.

We’re no doubt in for a very different experience. And perhaps the only person who could drive the needed change is someone like Donald J. Trump. But I’ll ask the question to his supporters.

When am I allowed to be concerned?

What does he say and what does he do that alarms you?

Because we’ve shrugged off quite a bit already. And when the people who supported a candidate’s rise to power can’t be counted on to eventually tell him he’s gone too far, we’re left with the institutions to do it. When I think of those institutions today, it gives me grave concern.

Who in Trump’s inner circle blows the whistle?

Who on his cabinet resigns over principle?

What Republican stands for no more in Congress.

Who in the press will we believe? 

Who are today’s Elliot Richardson and Archibald Cox?

Our most serious problem probably isn’t Donald J. Trump. It’s that the answers to those questions feel like the same ones that failed to check the truly dangerous leaders in history that hurt so many. And that’s new in America.