WASHINGTON — Of all the tributes to Barbara Bush, the encomium that touched this American heart the deepest was from historian Jon Meacham:
“She was the first lady of the Greatest Generation.”
He could more easily have said, “She was a great first lady of the White House.” He might, of course, just have stated, “She was a marvelous first lady of the United States.” But the more I thought about it, the more I found his words to be just right.
It was certainly clear the 92-year-old Barbara Pierce Bush had been in every way one of the finest women to grace our recent history, but it was less clear that she had also become the symbol for an era.
Hers was a “consequential life,” Meacham, the biographer of her husband, George, said about Barbara. “In hours of war and of peace, of tumult and of calm, the Bushes governed in a spirit of congeniality, of civility and of grace,” he said about the two of them.
And yes, we need to remember that Barbara was always there, behind her husband and behind their children, holding fast to sense and sensibility. But we also need to remember that she was there behind all of us.
So, let’s focus on the “us” in their time together – that long ago, but still relevant era of the Greatest Generation, during and after the Second World War.
Why was George H.W. Bush’s generation – who fought and won World War II, when wars ended in victory and not in quagmire; who went into politics to do something good rather than to rue somebody bad; and who came to run the country with modesty, common sense and (George’s favorite word) “prudence” – so memorable?
As a young journalist covering vice president and then President George H.W. Bush in the 1980s, I remember first his humor. Shortly after he became president, Bush invited four of us journalists to lunch in the Oval Office. At one point, the Los Angeles Times correspondent said to him: “Mr. President, I remember when I’d come in to see you when you were vice president. I’d ask you questions and you’d never really give me any answers.”
The president laughed rollickingly. “Yes, Jack,” he finally said, “I did that for eight years and ... here I am!”
And I remember the great sense of hope his four years between 1989 and ‘93 gave us, made possible not only by his and Barbara’s own inner wisdom but by his superb team, which included James Baker III, Gen. Brent Scowcroft and many other men and women who were all highly motivated and highly moral.
After he had put together a brilliant coalition to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, and after he had brought the parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict together in Madrid to make peace, and after he had successfully seen the U.S. and Russia through the fall of the Soviet Union, Bush and his team were planning to codify their tactics and morals of foreign policy into rules for the future.
But Bush’s defeat at the polls destroyed those hopes and led us to the ever diminishing grade of presidential leadership we see exemplified today.
The Greatest Generation, of course, actually fought in the Second World War – something unusual, given our recent leading officials’, shall we say, “hesitation” to fight much of anything except each other.
The Greatest Generation still had a flush of early American innocence about them, an innocence made possible by their church teaching and good manners, and enforced by mothers like Barbara Bush whose son Jeb joked (well, more-or-less joked) at the memorial that his mother was a “benevolent dictator” – without too much benevolence.
The Greatest Generation did not brag or boast, did not swagger or swank, but just did its job and did it well. How? “Barbara and George Bush put country above party, the common good above political gain, and service to others above the settling of scores.” Jon Meacham, again.
Will we find another George and Barbara? Not likely. You never step into the same river twice and all that stuff. But if we look closely around the world, we can see new leaders arising who appear to carry the Bushes’ values. Take a good look at French President Emmanuel Macron, here in Washington this week, and at his idea of a practical, commonsensical and, yes, even prudent “radical centrism.”
As for ourselves, we can look for and vote for men and women who hold Barbara and George’s values. Or we can continue playing with politics-as-entertainment and as leadership-as-revenge.
In the end, it will be up to us.
Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at email@example.com.