“Don’t you go and get it twisted
Forgiveness is not Forgetting”
George H. W. Bush has left the room.
The caterwauling is about to subside; the public displays of mourning and madness and maudlinity are in retreat. The markets, briefly closed in honor of “the day” (that’s another subject of oddity to me), are back headed into their predicted nosedive after their “un-presidented”, dizzyingly upward trajectory based upon false promises, fake facts, and an un-tethered disregard for actual history and statistics.
Donald J. Trump is back on Twitter.
But before we leave Mr. Bush senior, Poppy, there are a few things that I think need to be jotted down, if only in the margins of the history books, so that the future can inform itself from the past. As Jackson Browne says it better:
“But the angels are older
They can see that the sun’s setting fast
They look over my shoulder
At the vision of paradise contained in the light of the past”
First a disclaimer. I am a native Washingtonian. Born there, schooled there, many more there’s, there. My parents were married at the National Cathedral in the 1939. I was confirmed into the church there at the high altar in 1964 one year after President Kennedy’s funeral there. As a high school student, before the days of heightened security, the doors within and without the Cathedral were unlocked and skipping classes, we learned every nook and crevice of this masonry monolith. We would sneak into the turret spiral staircases, perch at the highest slot of a window imagining fortresses of old while smoking a joint or three. My mother has a bench with her name on it at the front garden entrance. My ties are binding.
So, when there is a national service at the Cathedral, I will admit to a certain misty-eyed reverie taking over almost immediately. I am certainly not religious; my parents quit the church soon after my confirmation in a tiff with the local reverend and I migrated with my friends over to Catholic Mass, CYO, and attended a Quaker high school as well a predominantly Jewish public high school for a time. A polyglot of religious non-fervor. Yet when the organ music swells and the choir erupts my soul has a momentary opening and my heart still does a quick-step with a breath-catch.
As a country, we have always held a vision of paradise, it has been our collective mantra since our founding; that we were better, brighter, and held a future that only needed burnishing in order to make “a more perfect union”. It is the ethos into which we were all born. I will speak for only the generations that have come forth since WWII since those are the ones whose lives I have lived and whose histories will be largely writ in my lifetime. I’m sure that other, previous generations, have felt the same sense of largess and destiny, the textbooks and histories are full of them but there is a strange uniqueness to those of us Americans who have inhabited the world since about 1940.
Granted science, that much beleaguered and sometimes debated subset of information has, in a word, overtaken us all. But, like the Conestoga wagons of the 19thcentury sporting “California or Bust” banners on their trek to Manifest Destiny in the Golden State, those Americans of the last 70 years or so seem to have adjusted our motto and thus our macho to read:
“Bigger, Better or Bust”
In our rush to accumulate and accrue we have tossed most of the basics of economics, social structure, and simple good nature-ness onto the verges of our litter strew highways along with the fast food containers, cigarette butts, and beer cans. We have all heard people speculate about what far-future generations will imagine our lives to have been like based on the detritus we have left behind. Forensic archaeology.
More important in my mind is the fiber of our lives, our social DNA, that will be transmitted to the coming generations. What have we gained in human essences? What have we lost? What have we learned? The answers to these questions are what our history will be written upon. The moral culture that shaped our politics and our people and our world is, right now, our living legacy.
We had better shape us.
George Herbert Walker Bush was a flawed man. Who among us is not?
He was implicitly indicated in wrong and morally corrupt decisions as early as his first large scale ventures into Republican party politics. In 1973, while head of the Republican National Party, upon being approached by then President Nixon he tried to exert influence and pressure through Senator George Bell to get Bell’s brother, the Attorney General for the state of Maryland, to drop the investigation into Vice President Agnew. The host of crimes implicated by these actions mirror much of today’s tawdry political stew. It did not work. First Agnew and soon thereafter Nixon were forced from office for the most morally bankrupt crimes in our history…….until now, again. Influence peddling and obstruction of justice remain rampant, but the reporting has gotten better, and it no longer takes decades to unearth the putrid stench of political sagacity.
But more than that, Bush, Sr. was complicit in so many other actions and non-actions that were of provable moral ambiguity at best if not outright unchristian in their result. As Vice President for eight years and President for four, his neglect and “benign” ignorance of the HIV/AIDS explosion cost thousands of lives; more than any war we were then or have since been engaged in. His sub-rosa engagement in the Iran-Contra affair is now solid fact. There are others, we need not tick them all off a list; the God that 41 believes in will handle that. But for us, those left behind for now to ponder the nature of man and morality, where does forgiveness fit in?
Can we truly forgive if we don’t forget?
If we look honestly at history, it is all a tad revisionist. While, in general, I hate this fact I have to concede that time, distance, changing mores, and the inevitable perspective that comes when each of us in our own humanity realizes that we, too, are terribly flawed, have done awful things, and are in need of as much forgiveness as the next person.
How do we ask our family and friends and our limited world around us for forgiveness if we steadfastly deny the same largess to those whose lives take place in a bigger arena, affect more people, and have a brighter light shining on them, always ready to find their faults and magnify then with vitriol and vehemence from all sides?
And so as I watch the majesty of the Bush 4141 train chugging across the Texas plains I think back in my lifetime to the rider-less caisson of JFK and the long, tear-stained train journey of RFK and I have to really search deep within myself and acknowledge that my misty-eyed moments of the past few days are real; that Bush 41 was a decent man and that even 43 is something more than the cringe-worthy buffoon I have always held him to be.
Do not mistake my musing as maudlin-gone-amok. I am still the steadfast liberal I have always been. I will still hold people and politicians accountable for their actions in real time. I find that with age I am more and more able to speak out with authority in the moment and to call out hypocrisy and evil when it presents. We all must, especially now. Yet we must all leaven our rage with compassion in order to bake a better country, a more humane people, and adhere to the role of leadership that we took upon ourselves so many centuries ago. Our leaders, like us, are flawed. We must struggle and learn to place them in the pantheon of history where they deserve to be held.
Forgiving is not Forgetting