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George H.W. Bush’s gift of momentary unity

By Rebecca Horvath • Dec 8, 2018 at 8:15 AM

The recent death of President George Herbert Walker Bush provided a rare opportunity for Americans to come together and display unity. In the wake of most national tragedies, there’s an undercurrent of division — for example, after a mass shooting, folks focus on gun control issues. But when a beloved 94-year-old symbol of strength, dignity and service died, ripples of unity spread throughout our nation; it wasn’t a tragedy in the usual sense, but a magnanimous loss felt by nearly everyone.

Many folks disagreed with “41” on political issues, but virtually everyone respected and revered the man himself. He was always described infinitely kind, delightfully funny and always up for an adventure. He once advised his son, “Die young, as late as possible.” Many of us related to Bush because he reminded us of our own fathers or grandfathers.

More than twenty-five years after his presidency ended, politics were easily pushed aside to make room for mourning, remembering and celebrating a life well-lived. His passing just a few months after his wife of seventy-three was certainly not a surprise, but deeply felt all the same.

There’s nothing quite like the pomp and circumstance, military precision and ceremony of a state funeral. On the rare occasion of a former president’s funeral, the majesty of state is on full display. For 41’s funeral, all five living presidents and first ladies were present, as well as all living vice presidents and their wives. Countless dignitaries, both domestic and foreign, were among the other guests.

Many images from the days after Bush’s death were instantly iconic. My personal favorites: a photo of his service dog, Sully, lying in front of his flag-draped casket; 95-year-old Senator Bob Dole painstakingly standing up out of his wheelchair, then saluting his fallen comrade, former rival and friend; and President George W. Bush expressing a rare public moment of deep, heart-wrenching sorrow.

Beautiful music, meaningful scripture and incredible eulogies were shared during the services. Bush 43 found himself in the unique and unimaginably difficult juxtaposition as the new head of the Bush dynasty, the former president used to leading by example and a grieving son who lost both beloved parents within months.

Traditionally, the sitting president offers a eulogy at a former president’s funeral, but most families do not include two former presidents. As such, 43 had the unusual honor of eulogizing his father, 41. After days of maintaining a stiff upper lip in the face of tremendous personal loss, it must have been a daunting task.

We have seen this president show great resolve in the face of the hardest days of our nation, always exemplifying strength and determination. He has spoken to a grieving nation many times, but this was different. He made it through almost the entire eulogy — which was poignant, funny and wise — before the grieving son finally had a moment of raw emotion. It was extraordinarily powerful.

The next day, Bush 41’s dear friend and former Secretary of State James Baker’s emotional tribute was a highlight of a beautiful service at the Bush family’s church in Houston. Throughout the week, the military carried out their duties with remarkable precision and solemnity, honoring their fellow soldier who had also been their commander in chief. A 21-plane flyover in the “missing man” formation provided a stunning coda.

With his stunningly impressive resume, George H.W. Bush was probably the most qualified man to ever serve as president. He was also a decorated veteran of the U.S. Navy who nearly died in World War II – the last president to have served in that war. (President Jimmy Carter, at age 94, remains the last living president from the Greatest Generation, but his military service came after the war.)

In the wake of his death, the respect and unity displayed across the country was an inspiring and appropriate tribute to 41. When the train carrying his casket travelled from Houston to College Station, Texas for burial, cars were stopped all around. Thousands of people lined the route to pay their respects to their fellow Texan. Earlier in the week when his casket travelled in motorcades, cars often stopped on the opposite side of the road in his honor.

Most folks managed to focus on 41’s well-lived life and well-loved family rather than petty political differences. The media that had treated Bush so poorly during his presidency finally gave him his due respect and accolades. Historical perspective on his accomplishments as president proves we often need distance to see most clearly.

All in all, the week of mourning offered a reminder that despite our divisions, differences and disagreements, we are all Americans with a shared history. Amid the sadness of saying goodbye to a faithful servant, we saw the best of our country and our patriots.

May we remember the example of service and honor of President George Herbert Walker Bush, eloquently summed up a quote from 2011: “There could be no definition of a successful life that does not include service to others. Find something to do. Get off the bench. Don’t sit there whining, sucking your thumb, get in the game.” Rest in peace, Mr. President.

Rebecca Horvath of Johnson City is a wife, mother and community activist. Reach her at re[email protected]

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