Witcover: George H.W. Bush's virtues brought honor to an office now sullied

The warm and genuine public outpouring of appreciation for the 41st president in services in Washington, D.C., and Texas reflected the authenticity and good will of the man. With these qualities, he brought honor not only to himself but also to the high office in which he served, where it is so lacking today.

George H.W. Bush, ever modestly optimistic and friendly, exuded to the end a generosity of spirit that sometimes masked his seriousness of purpose. Within his close family and beyond, he often was referred to as "Poppy," which seemed appropriate, though sometimes it conveyed the notion that there was something about his lopsided grin and occasional malapropisms that diminished his intelligence.


For all his aristocratic pedigree and easy-going bearing, he exuded a down-to-earth quality, seen in his diligent personal letters and notes to famous and not-so-famous correspondents alike throughout his long life of 94 years.

His family's graciousness was seen in the decision to invite the current president to attend the Washington National Cathedral funeral service even though he is the antithesis of the 41st president. Earlier, Donald Trump had been conspicuously excluded from the state service for the late Sen. John McCain, a man Mr. Trump had pointedly insulted.


Instead, the occasion Wednesday of the nation bidding goodbye to Bush was a soft reminder of what has been lacking in the Trump presidency — the personal humility and humanity of the blue-blood Yankee from Connecticut who became the rare breed of a modest and self-effacing Texan.

It was serendipitously appropriate that the traditional lying in state of a departed American president in the U.S. Capitol rotunda should take place at this time. It occurred as a solemn pause for reflection on how the 41st president through the sheer force of his personal demeanor and magnanimity instructed his countrymen on how a national leader should conduct himself toward others.

Mr. Trump was seated in the front row at the cathedral with the other surviving presidents — Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — but Mr. Trump did not speak. He sat hunched over and silent as the late president's son, President George W. Bush, delivered the eulogy, a loving tribute at the end of which he fought back tears.

Also among the closest family members was younger son Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida and the victim of vicious and humiliating attacks by Mr. Trump in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries. Jeb, on the strength of his governorship and as a member of the family dynasty, had been regarded the frontrunner for the 2016 nomination until Mr. Trump shredded him with taunts of "low energy" that quickly took their toll.

The younger son, a man of restrained demeanor in the manner of his father, provided the perfect foil for Mr. Trump then. Mr. Trump methodically mowed down Jeb and a field of 15 other presidential wannabes of generally undistinguished caliber en route to the GOP nomination.

In the process, the Grand Old Party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and, yes, George H. W. Bush became the Party of Trump. There was hardly a whimper of dissent or opposition from what once had been the conservative party establishment.

With the passing of Reagan, "Poppy" Bush became the largely silent and go-along patriarch of the party, joining other active leaders such as House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at a minimum acquiescing in the Trump era.

Still, the personal good will and generosity of the man who survived to be the oldest American president dictated that his successor, for whom he had ample grounds to bar from the final celebration of his life, be part of it. To the end, George Herbert Walker Bush was faithful to his own best qualities.


Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is