Speech makes us miss 43rd president

Bush decries cruelty, fear-mongering in much-needed talk
“We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization. Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions — forgetting the image of God we should see in each other.” — President George W. Bush

Last week, as President Donald Trump argued on social media with a war widow, we were reminded how much we miss George W. Bush.

The 43rd president, who has been the picture of class as an ex-president, gave a speech in New York last Thursday that took aim at bigotry, fear-mongering and xenophobia which, sadly, seem fashionable again in some quarters.

In the speech, Bush expressed concern about “discourse degraded by casual cruelty.” He warned against bullying and bigotry. He sang the praises of trade and the futility of working against globalization. He warned against nationalism morphing into nativism.

President Bush’s words were a welcome respite from the daily chaos we get from the Twitter president. They were a reminder that “compassionate conservatism,” a phrase coined by Bush, was an actual ideal to which to aspire.

“Our identity as a nation — unlike many other nations — is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood. Being an American involves the embrace of high ideals and civic responsibility. This means that people of every race, religion and ethnicity can be fully and equally American. It means that bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed.”

Powerful words in an environment where a shrug seems to be the default response to the near-daily assault on decency and decorum.

The speech was immediately attacked by Steve Bannon and his ilk, though the disgraced Bannon couldn’t hold a candle to Bush in the decency category.

Most Texas leaders were silent about the speech. It reminded us that a Bush couldn’t win a party primary in today’s ugly political climate.

Bush may not turn out to be judged favorably by history. But the man has a good heart. Those of us old enough to remember his service as Texas governor remember how he reached across the aisle and sought support from those outside his own party.

He oversaw the return of thousands of flag-draped coffins and took an effort to develop a bond with those who returned with injuries from overseas. In 2008, he said the thing he would miss most were his visits to the military hospital where the wounded received care.

In her book “And The Good News Is,” Dana Perino, who was Bush’s press secretary, recounted a 2005 visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Bush had a tense moment with the mother of a gravely wounded service member.

The president tried unsuccessfully to comfort her. So rather than continue to speak, he simply listened, absorbing her anger and grief.

Departing the hospital aboard Marine One, Bush allowed a single tear to roll down his cheek, Perino noted in her book. “That mama sure was mad at me,” the president said. “And I don’t blame her a bit.”

We miss that: a Commander in Chief strong enough to admit he is not infallible; not having to feel like he must have the last word; no making a horrible, grief-filled situation even worse.

We understand the frustration that led to Trump’s victory and that the 43rd president played a role in building that.

But we also can hope the Republican party steers back toward people like the Bushes — descent, kind, compassionate. – K.E.C.

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