There was once a private school that graded students on the usual academic subjects, plus a fuzzy category related to decorum: “Claims no more than his fair share of time and attention.” Modesty and deference are still enviable traits, but imagine enforcing such behaviors in the age of social media. Where would Twitter and Facebook be without boasts and rants? Our current president would be rendered mute.
The student who once excelled at “claims no more …” was President George H.W. Bush, whose lifetime of service to the country was characterized by his decency and good manners. These were virtues he learned at the Greenwich Country Day School in the 1930s, further instilled by his parents, who admonished him against being conceited. “I don’t want to hear any more about the Great I Am,” his mother told him.
And so Bush was polite. A biographer, Jon Meacham, called him “the last gentleman.” As president, Bush strove to work with political friends and foes alike. He aspired to make America “a kinder, gentler nation.” He was an inveterate letter-writer, Meacham said, but these were nice letters, handwritten thank-yous and supportive missives, not mean tweets.
The former president died Friday at age 94. Evidence to the contrary, civility did not go with him. It just feels like that era is gone in the public arena. Consider President Donald Trump’s penchant for attacks and insults. Check out Twitter, where Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last week accused a Democratic lawmaker of being a drunk.
But it’s not just Trump and his allies who are responsible. Plenty of other politicians share blame for sullying public discourse. There was Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, who shouted “you lie!” at President Barack Obama during a joint session of Congress. A few days ago in Springfield, Democratic state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit said on the House floor that she wanted to pump a deadly “broth” of bacteria into the water system used by a Republican colleague’s family. She later apologized.
Bush was no saint; he was a politician who could brawl with the best of them during campaign season. Anyone elected president must have a large ego and a quick left jab. But obituaries and other reflections on his life remind us that Bush achieved success in life while most often acting with honor and humility. Turning 18 in 1942, he enlisted in the service, becoming the nation’s youngest naval aviator. He was shot down in the Pacific. He was captain of the Yale baseball team. He ran the CIA. He didn’t keep those accomplishments secret, but he also didn’t present himself as the meanest guy in the room.
Bush’s comportment worked against him as a presidential candidate, because his self-effacement was misconstrued as weakness. Newsweek magazine wrote an absurd 1987 cover story headlined “Fighting the ‘Wimp Factor’.” CBS News, during the 1980 campaign, had asked Bush if he was “too nice” to be president.
Bush defended himself — politely: “I don’t equate toughness with just attacking some individual. I equate toughness with moral fiber, with character, with principle, with demonstrated leadership in tough jobs where you emerge not bullying somebody but with the respect of the people you led. … If I happen to be decent in the process, that should not be a liability.”
Those are words to live by.
If enough politicians and others in the public sphere would take a lesson from the former president’s honorable conduct, Americans would have more respect for their governments — and for each other.
By The Chicago Tribune Editorial Board.