Friday, December 7, 2018

Bush Funeral Afterthoughts

"What does it tell you that the feel-good events in Washington these days are funerals?" asks Susan Glasser at the beginning of her article in The New Yorker, reflecting on Wednesday's state funeral for former President George H, W. Bush ("George H. W. Bush's Funeral Was the Corny, Feel-Good Moment That Washington Craves," December 5, 2018)

Few American rituals manage to be as majestic as a presidential state funeral. Its repeated renditions of Hail the the Chief remind us that, for better or for worse, in our system our politician President is also our Head of State, the embodiment of the nation, the closest we come to a king, with all the symbolic resonance kingship conveys. 

Of course, that all seems even that much more salient in our present circumstance, dramatized (if more drama were needed) by the contrast between the uncomfortable-looking incumbent President and the chummy, chatty former presidents he had to share a cathedral pew with. As Glasser noted, while the Bushes went out of their way to be gracious to Trump, "all that well-bred graciousness" came across as "a brilliant act of Waspy revenge," as Trump had to sit through hours of hearing his predecessor "extolled in terms that wold never be applied to him" and "knowing that every statement praising Bush's decency and modesty and courage would be taken as an implicit rebuke of him."

But what does it say about the tragic transformation of our public life that everything now seems to be refracted through a Trumpian lens? Bush got the funeral that his high office - and his inevitably flawed but many decent personal qualities - deserved. "You don't have to accept the Bush family legacy," Glasser noted, "to say that he "seemed like a genuinely nice guy, if a bit miscast in a profession in which Trump may have the better of the argument that nice guys finish last." 

In our merciless era when one sin seems sufficient to damn one forever, some still remain too obsessed with Willie Horton to concede anything at all to either Bush's personal virtues or his political accomplishments. But isn't that precisely what a funeral challenges us to do? And not just as an act of belatedly balancing the historical record!

No, a well-done funeral is first of all a reminder of what we all share in common - we, who will one day die, with the dead, who once lived. Funerals remind us that our short and fragile human life is framed by who we have become - by what we have done and by whom we have loved. The funeral of someone who did a lot in life and who loved and was loved by many in return reminds us how truly central our activities and relationships are in defining who we ourselves become (however modest those activities and relationships may seem compared with those who strode visibly on the world stage).

Jon Meacham may have been right - or (much more likely) he may have excessively exaggerated  - in lauding Bush as "America's last great soldier statesman" and a "twentieth-century founding father." Historians will happily debate and contest those claims, and as citizens we are welcome to debate and contest them as well. It is right and proper to eulogize a president for his historical accomplishments, but it is even more important to remember him for his friendships, for the things that ultimately matter most in any human life and which will most make us into who we hope to become forever.

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