WASHINGTON ― George W. Bush doesn’t get out much anymore, but not because he’s frail. He just turned 70, but seems in fine health.
We don’t see him much because he doesn’t love the limelight ― or politics, really. Never did. The Bush family took a pasting in the Republican primaries this year. His presidency is to many a bitter memory.
He once told me that if politics didn’t work out he’d be happy to sit in a fishing boat out on a Texas lake. I believed him. He isn’t going to Cleveland for the GOP convention (neither is Mitt Romney and about a score of Republican U.S. senators).
But there Bush was on Tuesday, front and center at a memorial service in his hometown of Dallas. He has avoided most of public life, but it had come crashing in on him in the form of the deadly, racially motivated ambush of five Dallas peace officers.
His suit was bright blue and his hair was thinning, but he was pretty much as we remembered him: the aw-shucks stiffness, the nervous lick of the lips, the almost self-mocking smile, the careful, almost halting reading of a big-lettered speech text in a binder.
This somewhat diffident Bush was the best public Bush, and it came when he stood on broken ground and faced up to the worst ― as he did after 9/11. His failure to be that Bush ― urgently, immediately ― after Katrina in New Orleans cost him dearly.
It became a metaphor for indifference, and yet, when forced by circumstances to argue against indifference, Bush was effective.
That’s who he was on the stage of the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas.
The press focused on the speech that followed by President Barack Obama, who in his eloquent way argued both for the centrality of policing and the pain of minorities hounded by the police.
To the extent that the press noticed Bush, it was to remark on his odd dance-like moves on stage, or to quote him eulogizing the locals.
But the audience responding to something else ― which was Bush’s careful, even eloquent defense of a view of America utterly at odds with the man who next week, in all likelihood, will be officially crowded as the nominee of Bush’s Republican Party.
“At times, it seems like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together,” Bush said, without mentioning Donald Trump.
“Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates too quickly into dehumanization. Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions.”
The audience applauded heavily at this.
“And this has strained our bonds of understanding and common purpose.
“But Americans, I think, have a great advantage. To renew our unity, we only need to remember our values. We have never been held together by blood or background. We are bound by things of the spirit ― by shared commitments to common ideals.
“At our best, we practice empathy, imagining ourselves in the lives and circumstances of others. This is the bridge across our nation’s deepest divisions. And it is not merely a matter of tolerance, but of learning from the struggles and stories of our fellow citizens, and finding our better selves in the process.
“At our best, we honor the image of God we see in one another. We recognize that we are brothers and sisters, sharing the same brief moment on earth, and owing each other the loyalty of our shared humanity.
“At our best, we know we have one country, one future, one destiny. We do not want the unity of grief. Nor do we want the unity of fear. We want the unity of hope, affection, and high purpose.”
It was eloquent, and appropriate, and everyone knew to whom the message was directed.
Too bad that most of the Republicans who agree with him either aren’t bothering to go to Cleveland for the GOP convention ― or will sit silently in their delegate chairs while Trump roars.
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