George Herbert Walker Bush – the 41st US president – never wrote a post-presidential memoir. His son, George W Bush – the 43rd president – gave a possible explanation in the book he wrote instead, entitled 41: A Portrait of My Father.
“Dorothy Walker Bush [41’s mother] was a woman of strong faith,” Bush 43 wrote of his grandmother. “She read Bible verses to her children over breakfast every morning. One of her favourite passages was Proverbs 27:2: ‘Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth’.”
Now the praises are flowing freely for Bush 41, who died on November 30. He was not the greatest president America had, but he may well have been the greatest man to serve as president, the young war hero turned entrepreneur turned politician. Above all, in his later years he taught America about fathers and sons, a cultural lesson more important than anything that politics can achieve.
Bush was born into a wealthy Wall Street family, living in one of America’s richest cities, Greenwich, Connecticut. His father Prescott Bush was elected to the Senate as a Republican when that party dominated the northeast. After graduating from Yale, Bush turned down offers to join his father and grandfather in securing a comfortable life on Wall Street. Instead, he headed out to the Texas desert with his wife and young son. He would learn about the oil industry from the bottom up.
In 1964, when a 40-year-old Bush made an unsuccessful run for Senate as a Republican in Texas, the Democrats utterly dominated the state. In moving from Connecticut to Texas, Bush was shaping a new Republican future. The northeast would become a stronghold of liberal Democrats by the time Bush 43 would be elected in 2000, and Texas would be part of the solidly Republican south.
In 1988, when Bush 41 made his bid for president, he did poorly in the first state primary, in Iowa. He came third. That Senator Bob Dole came first from nearby Kansas was not a surprise. But that a sitting vice-president would trail Pat Robertson, a conservative Christian television broadcaster, was a shock. What conservative Christians had started in the 1970s as a cultural movement – the “Moral Majority” – had become an explicit political movement. In 1989, Robertson would establish the Christian Coalition, a significant force in conservative politics.
Both Ronald Reagan and Bush 41 had seen coming the rise of the “religious right”, as it came be known. They both changed their position on abortion from pro-choice to pro-life. They attracted culturally conservative Catholics into the Republican party, many for the first time. By the time the 2000 election took place, the Christian conservatives did not need their own candidate; the front-runner was one of them, Bush 43.
When the younger Bush was campaigning for president in 1999, he was asked in a debate about the philosopher he most identified with.
“Christ, because he changed my heart,” replied Bush 43.
He would explain later that this answer worried Bush 41.
“It was not a scripted answer; I just blurted out the truth,” Bush 43 would write. “Dad called shortly after the debate, as he often did. ‘Good job, son,’ he said. ‘I don’t think the answer on Jesus will hurt you too much.’ It was telling that his first instinct was to think that the comment would hurt me.”
Just as Bush 41 marked a geographic shift in the Republican party from northeastern moderation to southern conservatism, Bush 43 marked the cultural shift toward “values voters”. American conservatism was no longer driven by the country club Republican business establishment of Senator Prescott Bush. From Prescott to Bush 41 to Bush 43, three generations of the Bush family tracked exactly the shifting plates of American politics. In the fourth generation is George P Bush, son of Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who ran for president in 2016. George P has been elected twice as Texas Land Commissioner. He is half Mexican, Catholic and fully bilingual. The Bushes are ready for the next shift.
Bush 41 accommodated the rise of conservative cultural issues. When he first ran for president in 1980, his focus was on his competence and foreign policy experience. When he defeated Michael Dukakis in 1988, he did so in a campaign that emphasised his opponent’s cultural
Bush though, unlike his son, remained uncomfortable with religion in political discourse. His largely unspoken faith remained a central part of his life. At his deathbed was his parish priest, the rector of St Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston. Also at his bedside was his best friend of 60 years, James Baker, who managed his presidential campaigns and served as his secretary of state.
That morning, when Baker arrived to visit Bush 41, he opened his eyes, looked straight at him and asked: “Baker, where are we going today?”
“Well, Jefe [boss], we are going to heaven,” Baker replied.
“Good, that’s where I want to go,” George HW Bush replied. He died that night.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca