George H. W. Bush spoke at my Senior Recognition assembly the year I graduated from high school. He was trying to win the GOP nomination that eventually went to Ronald Reagan. My friend Kelly and I were seated with our homeroom in the front row, right in front of the bank of national TV cameras.Bush ran late and then started off with an anti-Ted Kennedy joke (“Sorry I’m late. My plane was behind Ted Kennedy’s. It only had one left wing and couldn’t fly very fast.”). The entire audience rose to its feet to laugh, cheer, and applaud–except for Kelly and me, who stayed silent and seated (no, it was not planned).
After the ceremony, he left through the back door near the cafeteria. the Cafeteria Ladies, including my mom and her boss, June, lined up in the hall to watch him leave. Bush shook hands when going down the line and when he got to June, she looked at him through her steel-rimmed glasses and said, “I’ll shake your hand, but I’m still not going to vote for you.” They shook hands. I have always admired June for doing that.
Those were the days long before our current level of 24-hour news and attention to viral videos of unconventional behavior. No one caught any of this on camera. I did find a copy of my yearbook online, and it had this grainy photo of Bush from the assembly.
I never trusted Bush I because he ran the CIA. This was around the time that the USSR went through several leaders with KGB ties (primarily Brezhnev and Andropov) and there was a lot of talk about how they should not be trusted. I thought the same was true of Bush I. Given all that happened during the 12 years of Reagan-Bush, I was right to be skeptical, especially given Iran-Contra and all of the convoluted crimes, abuses, and scandals that have shaped many of our ongoing relationships.
Now I feel a bit of nostalgia for this more thoughtful and civil version of a GOP president. I feel really conflicted about that. I realize that this misplaced wistfulness has more to do with our current state of leadership turmoil, than it does any with change in facts or the judgement of history on the George H. W. Bush presidency. And, in fact, I have often pulled myself up short with the realization, “Wow. How far have we come that I think the Bushes weren’t that bad.” In reality, the emphasis there should be a little different, “How far have we come that I think the Bushes weren’t that bad.”
RIP, George H. W. Bush. A little more civility goes with you.