How to Explain the Wave of Nostalgia Around George H. W. Bush’s Death

George H.W. Bush’s death and funeral cracked open the door to a world we had nearly forgotten.  Many experienced the remembrances around that era in a wave of nostalgia that deserves an explanation.        

Bush was known by friend and foe alike as a man of decency and honor.  Actually, though, he embodied values considered rather commonplace in his time and before.  Similar words could have been said of Truman, Eisenhower, Ford, Kennedy, or Ronald Reagan.  We expected nothing less than decency and honor from an American president.

Before we close the door on the last president from the generation who fought a World War, perhaps it’s worth remembering what we took for granted for so long.  Coming of age in Bush’s time and before afforded some lovely privileges that seem almost quaint now.

We lived our lives (mostly) unaware of who occupied the presidency.  Imagine what it was like to feel no need to follow a president’s daily remarks or check to see if what he said today matched what he said last week.  If the President declared you could keep your doctor and your health insurance -- well, that actually meant you could keep your doctor and your health insurance.  You didn’t think much about it.

Since you weren’t having to scour the papers or catch the latest commentary on NPR you could get on with making a life.  Quite literally, you could get a life.  Job, marriage, graduate school -- that’s what you gave your attention to with the confidence that the person who occupied the White House would handle the big stuff.  Or better said, you were confident the president would undergird the institutions and the principles that made it possible for people like you to create a functioning adult life that also included an enthusiastic effort to birth the next generation.

Almost never did you overhear something on a television screen in a public setting where you thought, “Tell me I did not just hear the President of the United States say that.  Surely I got that wrong.”  Well, probably not.

We could rest in a standard set of expectations.  Nearly every President in the memory of boomers (and their parents) modeled behavior becoming to the office -- certainly, in any public sense.  In Bush’s funeral this week we remembered how long we have endured this wasteland of character.

Peggy Noonan,  in her article marking the 20th anniversary of efforts to impeach Bill Clinton for lying about his sexual affair with a junior staff member,  noted how much Clinton could have saved the country if he had owned his failure and apologized.  Instead, he let the country bear the brunt.  We endured a year in which “8-year-olds learned about oral sex from the radio on the way home from school, and 10-year-olds came to understand that important adults lie…and teenagers knew if the president can do it, I can do it.  It marked the end of a certain mystique of leadership, and it damaged the mystique of American democracy.”

Noonan is right to note that what we expected out of the presidency, already wobbly from Richard Nixon’s disaffection with the truth, took a sharp, plummeting nose dive from Clinton’s cultural moment.

In Bush’s era and before, you expected a president to decline the temptations inherent with an overactive ego.  One of the most popular presidents of the last century, Dwight Eisenhower, actually had to be drafted into the job.  He had no personal need to be president. 

Most previous presidents would echo George Bush’s words,   “When the really tough choices came, it’s the country, not me.  It’s not about Democrats or Republicans;  it’s the country that I fought for.”   Oh, to see a president or political leader once again act as a statesman who places the welfare of the country over his party or himself.

Bush’s funeral reminded us that the American door on expectations has always swung both ways.  When John Kennedy insisted that we consider what we could do for our country, rather than what the country owed us, no one blinked.  We owed a debt to those whose sacrifices gave us the life we enjoyed.  Kennedy spoke that truth, and we knew he was right.  You were expected to give back.

We inhabited a world where the invisible was considered real.  Perhaps the strongest note of wistful longing in Bush’s funeral was the lifelong example of a leader who lived by a set of transcendent values.  Honor, friendship, loyalty, honesty -- Americans have always believed that these immaterial attributes were the basis of a good life.

Whatever you owned, whatever you achieved, it meant nothing if you lacked the part you can’t see -- what’s historically been known as virtue.  Even if you failed to live up to those values, you believed that virtue would trump in the end.

Hardly a better model of that conviction exists than George Bush.  His loyalty to his family, his country, and to God:  this is true greatness in any person.  He might be driving a speed boat at 85, but he was holding Barbara’s hand, the same faithful hand he held for over 70 years.  People who grew up in an earlier America know that however much our economy grows, this country will never be great again without a return to virtues like these.

There is some deep irony that the values and virtues being celebrated in this President’s death are the same ones often derided in his life.  It’s not the election of Donald Trump that’s destroyed the political and personal values that Bush and earlier presidents held dear.  “It is telling,”  writes columnist Daniel Henninger,  “that these same simple virtues are now being praised by a media that has done so much in the past 30 years to undermine them.”   He portrays a poignant picture of the Republican National Convention of 1992 that nominated George Bush.  It was filled with delegates who were middle class American couples championing “family values,” to the utter derision of a disdainful media.  Exactly where do we think virtue comes from?

So, yes, Bush’s funeral struck a note of nostalgia in many viewers, especially those who came of age in another time.  As I watched eulogy after eulogy and listened to Michael W. Smith sing “Friends,” I could also hear my grandchildren playing in the background.  I hope they will eat their vegetables even though George Bush lived to be 94 without eating his.  Mostly, though, I ache with the longing that they will see character and selflessness in an American leader in their lifetimes.

I closed my computer screen and went in search of those same grandchildren.  I couldn’t help but notice, as I went, that my cheeks were slightly wet.  I’m pretty sure it was tears.

Photo credit: US DoD

Paula Rinehart is a therapist in Raleigh, NC who writes contemporary articles on culture, faith, and family relations.  She’s the author of Sex and the Soul of a Woman (Zondervan).