Humility and Civility: More Pols, Please, Like George H.W. Bush
December 5, 2018
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.
©2018 Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
In The News
Few jobs in politics might be tougher than to be a moderate member of Congress. Moderates typically hail from competitive districts, which means they enter office with targets on their backs from an opposition eager to wrest away their seats. And unlike their colleagues in safely... Read More
Persons of faith from around the world are suffering, yet again. The world had not yet healed from the attacks in New Zealand, when the devastating Easter Sunday suicide bombings took place in Sri Lanka. Then, just a week later, there was another hate-fueled attack –... Read More
There’s something particularly ironic about a presidential candidate standing in the rural state of Mississippi and calling for abolishment of the Electoral College. Yet, that’s exactly what Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., did on the campaign trail. She’s not alone. Other major Democratic candidates have piled on... Read More
The first time I saw it, I could barely breathe. It was so beautiful against the cerulean sky. Our Lady of Paris. It looked like a mass of lace, draped over scaffolding, with giant crystal kaleidoscope windows. I fell in love with a building that was... Read More
Say this for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos: She's consistently elitist. She's also consistently obtuse, which often is the demeanor of the entitled. DeVos simply can't be bothered to consult studies that don't comport with what she already believes or to consider input from members of... Read More
Lawyers are at rock bottom. Only 18% of the population perceives lawyers to contribute “a lot” to society. This was the conclusion of a 2013 Pew Research Center study regarding the perceived contribution to society of various professions and try though I might, I couldn’t find... Read More