Let's get all the good stuff about George Herbert Walker Bush out of the way first. There was a lot of it -- notably his heroics in World War II, self effacement in a theater of massive egos, some foreign policy successes and espousal of the kind of family values that mattered, not the GOP's latter-day Handmaid's Tale variety -- but this obituary is not your father's Oldsmobile, so if you don't want to be reminded of what an utter mediocrity Poppy ultimately was, then drive on.
With Bush's passing on November 30 at age 94 went the last echoes of a Cold War era that seems almost quaint in 2018 with a deeply corrupt president who heroically avoided going to Vietnam because of bone spurs, doesn't have an ounce of modesty, has failed disastrously in cobbling together a foreign policy predicated on insult and provocation, and whose values, family and otherwise, have plunged America into an unending nightmare as we lurch from crisis to crisis.
My big knock against Poppy is not that he failed to get reelected because as a blue blood he was out of touch with "ordinary" Americans in a time of economic instability and lacked a plan to address their fears beyond his fatuous, vote-losing "Read my lips" rejoinder. He was out of touch, but the big knock is that he didn't have the guts to murmur a peep when that might have mattered further down the road when post-9/11 America was reeling under the feared threat of another terrorist attack and a real threat because his son, a feckless president, was being held hostages by his advisers.
"After years of holding back," as The New York Times preciously put it, Bush broke his silence in November 2015 with the publication of Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush by Jon Meacham, finally fessing up to the irreparable damage to the U.S. and its world standing by his neophyte son, George W. Bush, and the key architects of his administration.
Dubya's father had known when to stop in pursuing Saddam Hussein, while his own recklessness resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and the emergence of Iran as a regional power that Barack Obama was able to barely contain and Donald Trump treats like an adversary in a future war to be scheduled at the convenience his best buddies Israel and Saudi Arabia, those strange Middle Eastern bedfellows.
The elder Bush acknowledged in Destiny and Power that he never spoke up privately, let alone publicly, nor uttered a discouraging word to Bush frère, and that Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld "served his son badly" in ruthlessly undercutting him in the service of their neocon empire-building agendas.
Let's assume for a moment that Bush père had spoken up. Or that the many Republicans who accurately viewed Sarah Palin as a kook and cipher spoke up when John McCain selected her as his 2008 running mate, or at least after McCain's humiliating defeat. Would the course of history have been altered?
Would the Republican Party have pulled back from its mad march into the suicidal right-wing nuttiness hinted at by Palin and personified by Trump?
And most relevant in a contemporary context, would the legacy of the younger Bush not be so toxic and the dynasty that Poppy Bush built and nurtured not have come to an ignominious end with younger son Jeb Bush's flailingly pathetic bid to become the standard bearer of a Republican Party that no longer welcomed moderation because people like his father who could have made a difference by speaking up did not?
The first George Bush, weakened from Parkinson’s disease in the waning years of his life and then the death of his beloved wife Barbara on April 17, had seen his reputation again rise. It is convenient to be nostalgic for a time when the political order was not shot through with partisan bomb throwing, when qualified people in government service outnumbered the hacks, and relations with our allies were not so combative. But then almost anyone looks better than Trump.
I always believed that Bush, like his presidency, was misunderstood although he and his architects tried to do good.
"I feel like an asterisk," Bush had told Meacham during an interview at the family's retreat in Kennebunkport, which inevitably evoked memories of the Kennedy compound at Hyannisport but couldn't live up to its time-capsule Camelot image.
"I am lost between the glory of Reagan -- monuments everywhere, trumpets, the great hero -- and the trials and tribulations of my sons," Poppy said. "What if they just find an empty deck of cards?"