King David deeply lamented the death of King Saul and his son Jonathan. The three were bonded by critical events at the founding of the monarchy of the nation of Israel. Out of the depths of despair, David wrote, “The beauty of Israel is slain on your high places! How the mighty have fallen!” (2 Samuel 1:19).
Last week’s death of former U.S. President George H. W. Bush brings some of the same sentiment. Mr. Bush served one term as the 41st American President and his death makes us aware that a generation of Americans—the World War II generation; a generation of common people who were caught up in mighty events—is quickly passing from our time. We will do well to remember them.
George Bush enlisted in World War II at the age of 18 and flew a torpedo bomber in the South Pacific theater. His plane was shot down and he survived, though two of his crewmates died. He never desired to be called a “hero,” saying those who died and never came home were the true heroes. This was a modesty instilled in him by his mother, and it served him throughout his life.
At a significant historical moment in history, this same modesty likely helped shape President Bush’s response to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Refusing to gloat over the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bush aided German’s path to reunification and helped shape what he called, and hoped would appear to be, a “new world order.” America at that moment stood astride a new world as the sole global superpower. When Bush and his national security team assembled a coalition of nations to oust Iraq’s Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, it was thought a new moment of international cooperation had appeared. It was not destined to last.
George Bush made a point of writing notes and letters to his family, friends and acquaintances throughout his life. I think that is the biggest lesson for me from his life. No matter how busy we are and how high we go in life, the personal touch of a note or a card is always something that will lift people’s spirits and forge lasting bonds of friendship. I do this often in my work and find it a useful antidote to the instant digital world we inhabit. Words written in ink on paper are always in good taste.
Historians argue whether the times make a man or a man makes his time. I think President Bush was shaped by his time, as most of us are. At his death he is remembered fondly by many Americans for his part in a period of American resurgence of prosperity and world influence. His was a steady hand that guided the state through a unique moment.
A man who stood for beauty and good things in life has died. America was better off for having him as its president.