I was nine years old when George HW Bush was elected president. He’s the first president I really remember. And like many things in life, the first of something becomes at some level the measuring stick by which you judge the others. He was a good first.
When on the campaign trail in 1988, Bush described the kind of America he hoped to see emerge under his presidency. He used the phrase, “a kinder gentler America.” In reading a number of the memorials written following his death, it was fascinating to note how often those same two words were used to describe him—and appropriately so.
In re-watching snippets a few of his speeches this week, I couldn’t help but be struck by the civility of his communication and manner. There was an endearing winsomeness in the way he spoke and engaged. There was a compelling ordinary grace about him. He was the everyman’s president.
And yet this kind, gentle man was, at the same time, a steely politician who let the business of politics get the best of him, at times. John Meacham wrote for the New York Times this week, “Mr. Bush was a gentleman, but he was a politician, too, and therein lay the great tension of his life. ‘Politics isn’t a pure undertaking—not if you’re going to win, it’s not,’ he [Bush] once told me. That’s the way politics is, unfortunately.”
The inherent impurity of politics led Bush to adapt principles—sometimes allowing ends to justify the means. This was particularly true when Bush’s success was threatened. Meacham notes how the “Competitor” within Bush often occupied provisional dominion over the “Conciliator” and doing what’s “best for the country” was often too tied up in his winning and succeeding.
In noting this, I’m simply acknowledging that George HW Bush was a man in need of grace. That he, like all of us, compromised his beliefs and convictions at times in order to get what he wanted—in order to win. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone (John 8:7).
But in light of this, can you imagine how hard the presidential loss in 1992 was for Bush? Some of his darkest days came after he lost the bid for reelection, but you’d never know it publically. He handled the loss with grace.
In the now famous letter that Bush left for incoming President Clinton, he wrote:
“There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course. You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”
In his eulogy this week, George W. Bush noted how his father became an adopted father to many, including his political opponent, the unlikeliest of all, President Bill Clinton. It says a lot when a man reaches out in love toward his opponent and forges a friendship. Surely we can all agree, that whatever shortcomings there were in George HW Bush, more of this kind of love is what we want to see in our public square.
But it’s not just in our public square where we want to see this. We want see this everywhere. For in such overtures of love, the outline of gospel story is glimpsed: the story of the Father’s perfect love reaching out toward us, His enemies, making us adopted sons and daughters through His Son, Jesus Christ.
It’s this love toward us—the unlikeliest of all—that we set our hearts toward this Advent until the whole world is remade in love.