A few movie scenes are guaranteed to put a lump in my throat every time. Near the top of the list is the end of “Saving Private Ryan,” Steven Spielberg’s World War II masterpiece.
Earlier, in a climactic battle scene, a dying Capt. Miller (Tom Hanks) tells Pvt. Ryan (Matt Damon) to “earn this, earn it.” Translation: Live a life worthy of the sacrifice so many made for you.
In the final scene, decades later, an elderly Ryan visits Miller’s grave in Normandy, France, and tells the headstone that he’s remembered Miller’s plea every day since. “I hope that at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.” He then turns to his wife and beseeches her, “Tell me I’m a good man.”
The scene keeps coming to mind since the news of George H.W. Bush’s death at the age of 94.
Bush, who enlisted right after high school, was at one time the youngest Navy pilot in World War II. He was shot down, losing comrades in the process.
He didn’t like to talk about the experience. Even when it would have helped him politically, as when he was running against an Arkansas governor who assiduously avoided the draft, or when elite journalists described him as a “wimp.” Bush told his speechwriters to leave out the details of his own war stories, partly because he didn’t want to seem boastful, but mostly because he didn’t want to cry.
Bush was surely a good man before he enlisted, but he spent the rest of his life as if he were trying to earn the sacrifice others made.
The author David Brooks has written a lot about the differences between “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” The former is what you put on your professional bio, LinkedIn page or CV. The latter is what you hope people who knew you will say about you when you’re gone.
For understandable reasons, much of the coverage of the former president has focused on his resume: pilot, Yalie, oilman, congressman, ambassador to the United Nations and China, head of the CIA, vice president and president.
But if you listened to those who knew him best, they tended to eulogize him. Former aides described him as the best person they knew, a man who made everyone around him want to be better by following his example.
American presidents tend to fit two molds: transformative leaders and transitional ones.
Transformative presidents seek to radically alter the status quo, either out of political necessity or psychological ambition. They prefer to keep the outbox on their desk full.
Transitional presidents see themselves as stewards of stability. They greet the challenges that pile up in their inbox as they materialize, rather than looking for systemic reforms.
Ronald Reagan was a transformative president. Ideologically he was much more conservative than Bush.
But temperamentally, Bush was more conservative. Much like George Washington and Calvin Coolidge, Bush viewed the presidency primarily as an august managerial position in a system where leaders inspire by example, not by rhetoric.
“No president, no government can teach us to remember what is best in what we are,” Bush declared in his inaugural address. His job was to encourage Americans to be their best selves in service to each other, and to lead by example.
This is why Bush was so well-suited to being Reagan’s successor. If the Gipper was the battering ram, Bush was the clean-up operation. He fixed the savings-and-loan crisis, signed the Clean Air Act, cleared Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and put a bow on the dangerously messy aftermath of the Cold War.
On election night 1988, he was at a party in Houston, watching the returns. As Fox News’ Brit Hume recounts, when the news arrived that Bush won, having recovered from a 17-point deficit, Bush’s motorcade was waiting outside to take him to a victory celebration. The first thing Bush did? Help clean the dishes.
Bush lost his re-election bid for many reasons. But the most important factor was that the American people, liberated from the Cold War, had a hunger for transformation. Bill Clinton vowed sweeping change, even though he fell back into transitional mode when it suited his interests.
Our hunger for transformative presidents, for “outsiders” to save America, has only intensified. The sad irony is that if salvation is what we need, it will come only when Americans themselves take to heart the example of this good man.