America faces a crossroads after George H.W. Bush's death

The contrast could not be more stark. As big headlines around the world announced the death of George H.W. B...

Posted: Dec 3, 2018 1:22 AM
Updated: Dec 3, 2018 1:22 AM

The contrast could not be more stark. As big headlines around the world announced the death of George H.W. Bush on Friday, just beneath them were these:

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The juxtaposition highlighted the acute loss of the last World War II veteran to occupy the White House, along with the decency and service Bush embodied.

It is fitting that news sites' homepages Saturday morning were bracketed by Bush's death and the G20 summit in Argentina. They are, in fact, bookends.

Bush heralded the New World Order and called for the transformation of international relations and economics once the United States and the Soviet Union were no longer pitted against each another in a contest between capitalism and communism.

Bush knew the hope, freedom and opportunity that the end of the Cold War would bring. But he also knew it presented dangers -- not least of all the disintegration of American resolve and unity. Without a common enemy, would America and the Atlantic alliance remain united in the face of numerous global challenges? Would Democrats and Republicans?

America has relinquished much of its global leadership under President Trump, who in many ways epitomizes a post-Cold War world. It is not a New World Order Bush could have imagined: a businessman and reality TV star who then became a president who touts "America first" while denouncing globalism.

Trump is in many ways the opposite of the patrician and taciturn Bush. And that is one of the reasons our 45th president was elected. Bush was the ideal of the establishment. Trump is the rebel who undermines American institutions. He has also disparaged and denigrated the intelligence community Bush led as director of the CIA.

Bush was not a perfect president or politician. He lacked Trump's ability to connect with voters emotionally. Most importantly, many of his policies and politics planted the seeds of American division today. His successful but limited campaign against Saddam Hussein liberated Kuwait but left the Iraqi dictator in power, arguably leading to the problematic second Gulf War. The resulting American occupation led many to doubt both the elite and foreign military engagements -- doubts that helped Trump win the election.

The Willie Horton ad that Bush's campaign supporters used against 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis helped Bush win, but it also exploited racist fears of black men. Bush's campaign manager Lee Atwater later apologized for it. Thirty years later, Trump released a similar ad stoking fears about immigrants just days before the 2018 midterm elections.

But Bush ultimately called on our unity far more often than he sought to exploit our divisions. Indeed, he may have sacrificed his chance at a second term in 1992 by refusing to "go low" in his contest against young Democrat Bill Clinton, whose campaign was at one point threatened by scandal.

"He loved America with all of his heart and served her as fully and completely as anyone ever has," Condoleezza Rice wrote in her tribute to Bush. "He has finished his race with honor and dignity."

Agree or disagree with Bush's politics, it is his profound decency that is his legacy. Just one example: Read his letter to Clinton after he lost the 1992 election. That dignity and decorum is, perhaps, the greatest difference between Trump and his predecessors.

That decency deficit is what has a led a handful of Republicans to repudiate Trump's politics and tone -- and many more did so before he was the party's nominee.

But today's Republican Party is the party of Trump, not the party of Bush.

And America is at a crossroads. The suburban vote in the midterm elections suggested that many swing voters reject Trump's divisiveness. But do they accept the burdens of global leadership that George H.W. Bush embraced?

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