We all woke up Saturday morning to the news that President George H. W. Bush had died, the man many of us called “Papa Bush” to differentiate him from his son. And whereas the son is now, with the gentling buffer of time, becoming less polarizing and more relatable at a personal level, the father has always been a character of human dimension.
Politics might have divided us, and partisans might have criticized his policies and legacy, but virtually no one hated George Herbert Walker Bush. The closest we got to negativity was the sarcastic-yet-endearing caricature perfected by Dana Carvey in the old “Saturday Night Live” days where “read my lips” was a punchline.
Our 41st president was always a good man, and even though we can’t ignore the controversies of his presidency, which seem ridiculously tame in comparison to the cataclysms of those in his successors’ administrations (including his eldest son’s), his years in public service seem benign in retrospect.
But that’s not what we were thinking of when we turned on the television and saw that handsome face with the obligatory epitaphs and eulogies scrolling beneath it, and heard the laudatory comments from pundits and politicians. We weren’t thinking about Desert Storm, or Dan Quayle, or broken economies or the failure to capture Saddam.
At least I wasn’t, and from what I saw on the social media accounts of friends, neither were most of us. We were thinking about the fact that with the extinguishing of this human point of light, brighter than the thousands that he often referenced in speeches, we had lost one of the last good men of a generation that is now fading into the mists of time.
There is a mythology of the “Greatest Generation,” popularized by Tom Brokaw and David McCullough and other cultural and critical historians who told us the stories of those who came of age during the Depression and World War II. Very few of those men and women are still alive, and so when one of the remaining flesh and blood examples of that generation leaves the Earth, we are forced to reflect on what that passing means. At a granular, personal level, the death of a beloved grandfather or uncle means the loss of an important family member, of his laughter, of her stories, of their dedicated spirits and the memories that only they could pass along.
But when a man like George H.W. Bush passes on, the country is the “family,” and we are faced with the sad prospect that something truly special has been taken away from all of us, even those of us who never had the joy of speaking with, meeting, or even getting a hand-written letter from a man so famous for sending them to unsuspecting admirers.
The reason that the death of someone like President Bush touches a deeply set, imperceptible chord in us is that we sense his goodness and humanity, and we mourn the loss of that in the public square. We mourn a dignity that is all but gone, we mourn a gentleness that has been replaced by bluster and bravado and brashness, we understand that politics will never again be a game played by gentlemen or gentlewomen. We grieve the man, but we also grieve his era and his class, his type and his imprint.
I spend a lot of time with my nephew talking about dinosaurs and creatures that are now extinct, and I can’t get beyond the thought that there is some human parallel when talking about the people who shared a lineage and a time frame with George H.W. Bush. There aren’t many like him left, and his passing leaves a hole that won’t be filled by anyone again.
In the end, the thing that made me cry was the fact that this good man was finally with his beloved wife and daughter Robin, the child he and Barbara lost to Leukemia at the age of 3. My tears were the kind that spring from a happy catharsis, and the knowledge that the man who had spent a lifetime missing his little girl would be able to hold her again.
That’s an unusual thought to have about a former president the morning after his death. And that’s why that death is so achingly sad.