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George H.W. Bush and the benefits of civility

Much ink has been spilled since George H.W. Bush died last Friday. The initial coverage — as is the custom with obituaries — was laudatory, recalling the former president and vice-president’s foreign policy successes like the first Gulf War or the peaceful denouement of the Cold War or perhaps his “thousand points of light” promotion of volunteerism. Next came what might be described as the “wait a minute” follow-ups that brought more attention to his less-noble moments such as the Willie Horton ad or his failure to adequately address the AIDS epidemic. All the coverage, broadcast and print, came with many personal, often warm, sometimes quirky, anecdotes covering everything from his love of family to his willingness to skydive at age 90.

But as dignitaries from around the world gather in Washington, D.C., for the official state funeral in the Washington National Cathedral Wednesday, we trust the nation’s 41st president will be remembered not only for the highs and lows of his tenure in office or his love of country and family or even his heroic actions as a young naval aviator in World War II, but for something this nation is in seriously short supply of these days but which Mr. Bush had in abundance: Humility, civility, courtesy, compromise.

Pardon if we inject some personal experience with this, but rare is the reporter who covered the elder Bush’s White House or political campaigns who does not have a note or two from him, who does not recall an off-the-record conversation over personal matters, who wasn’t struck by his, for lack of a better word, emotional maturity and sheer grownup-ness. Some may attribute this to a patrician upbringing, others to the Southern hospitality that his adopted home state of Texas claims, and then there will always be the cynics who see in his outreach just another politician trying to sweet talk those around him — including the skeptics.

But so what? What is wrong with civil conversation? Let’s not make any recollection of Mr. Bush another excoriation of Donald Trump, but even the 45th president’s most ardent supporters must recognize the contrast. One can no more imagine George Herbert Walker Bush tweeting an early morning put-down of a political opponent (as stupid or bleeding from every orifice or a “total lightweight” or “dumb as a rock” or on and on) than one can imagine him lying six times a day. Mr. Trump isn’t the only unmannerly politician or public figure, but he certainly has taken such behavior within the White House to new lows, at least for modern times.

The reality is that the U.S. had been slipping into a more savage, more tribal and polarized, more fact-free political debate long before Mr. Trump threw his hat in the ring. Blame the two-party system. Blame the internet. Blame the widening gap between the haves and have-nots and its threat to the American dream. The death of the Bush family patriarch is a reminder that things don’t have to be that way. That Americans can disagree without being disagreeable. That they can show compassion. Or at least there was a time. And such an open dialogue can facilitate compromise as when President Bush agreed to a budget deal that raised taxes but may have ultimately cost him reelection. Doing the right thing isn’t the same as doing the politically beneficial thing.

Mr. Bush was no saint, of course. The Horton ad alone — the 1988 TV commercial that attacked the prison furlough program in Massachusetts with the image of a black man who raped a Maryland woman while out on such a pass — was so obviously racist that Bush’s campaign manager, Lee Atwater, later apologized on his deathbed for his use of Mr. Horton in the campaign, though the ad’s beneficiary never did. But that’s the complex nature of humanity. Even the decent can be blind to their transgressions. Meanwhile, such fear-mongering continues in the vilification of migrants, each violent crime committed by someone born outside the country offered as proof of their evil intent.

America doesn’t need a president of moral perfection, it simply needs one of basic decency. The 41st president, even with his flaws, was such a person. That is part of why the nation grieves so deeply today.

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