George Herbert Walker Bush was elected president in 1988, and the 30-year gap between his victory and his funeral Wednesday means many Americans don’t remember his single presidential term well. Some were not yet born or were too young to pay much heed. Others had not yet reached our shores.
And even among those who lived through Bush’s time in the White House and remember it well, there remain sharp political divides over the 41st president’s leadership.
But in the messages from eulogists and the unifying and nonpartisan camaraderie of those at Bush’s funeral Wednesday at the Washington National Cathedral, there were unique pageantry, protocols and history. And at a time when our nation’s body politic is torn asunder by rage and disunity, it was a reminder that we have a common tradition.
When the frail former senator and fellow World War II veteran Bob Dole delivered a stirring, standing salute to Bush’s casket on Tuesday, his action cemented a feeling that the nation was saying goodbye to more than a former president. We mourn the passing of a generation of men and women who, while imperfect, endured fantastic hardship to safeguard and build the world we enjoy. We fear that the ethos they championed, of courage and generosity and humility and community, is disappearing, too.
But Bush, his eulogists said, felt no such pessimism for the future of this nation. They told the story of a student and a warrior, a friend and a family man, an athlete and prankster, and a supporting actor on the national political scene who captured the lead role, only to lose it. Bush’s eldest son, former President George W. Bush, recalled an optimistic, loving father who “showed me what it means to be a president who serves with integrity, leads with courage and acts with love in his heart for the citizens of our country.”
But around the nation’s dinner tables and television sets, the rush of nostalgia for a familiar public figure whose last decades were lived so gently was tempered by arguments over his policies. The campaign ads that inflamed racial fears. The broken promise of “no new taxes.” The decision to deploy military force against Saddam Hussein in support of Kuwait, and then leave Hussein in place in Iraq. The full-on commitment to Americans with disabilities, and the less forceful response to the AIDS epidemic.
Bush was flawed and human, and the presidency is an extraordinarily difficult job. The celebration of his service and the criticism of his failures are equal parts of our national tradition.
The United States is far from the only free nation in the world, and it is not the only land where four former leaders and a current one, representing vastly different political and personal beliefs, could gather in solidarity to send off another leader. But it is the nation where the idea of democratically elected leaders with opposing views replacing each other peacefully was invented and embraced. Every other nation that celebrates such a tradition is trying to live up to the example that was on display at Bush’s funeral.
So, increasingly, is the United States.
Today is Friday, Dec. 7, the 341st day of 2018. There are 24 days left in the year.
Today's Highlight in History:
On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack on the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii as part of its plan to conquer Southeast Asian territories; the raid, which claimed some 2,400 American lives, prompted the United States to declare war against Japan the next day.
On this date:
In 43 B.C., Roman statesman and scholar Marcus Tullius Cicero was slain at the order of the Second Triumvirate.
In 1787, Delaware became the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution.
In 1842, the New York Philharmonic performed its first concert.
In 1911, China abolished the requirement that men wear their hair in a queue, or ponytail.
In 1917, during World War I, the United States declared war on Austria-Hungary.
In 1946, fire broke out at the Winecoff (WYN'-kahf) Hotel in Atlanta; the blaze killed 119 people, including hotel founder W. Frank Winecoff.
In 1972, America's last moon mission to date was launched as Apollo 17 blasted off from Cape Canaveral. Imelda Marcos, wife of Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos, was stabbed and seriously wounded by an assailant who was shot dead by her bodyguards.
In 1987, 43 people were killed after a gunman aboard a Pacific Southwest Airlines jetliner in California apparently opened fire on a fellow passenger, the pilots and himself, causing the plane to crash. Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev set foot on American soil for the first time, arriving for a Washington summit with President Ronald Reagan.
In 1988, a major earthquake in the Soviet Union devastated northern Armenia; official estimates put the death toll at 25-thousand.
In 1993, a gunman opened fire on a Long Island Rail Road commuter train, killing six people and wounding 19. (The shooter was later sentenced to a minimum of 200 years in prison.)
In 2001, Taliban forces abandoned their last bastion in Afghanistan, fleeing the southern city of Kandahar.
In 2004, Hamid Karzai (HAH'-mihd KAHR'-zeye) was sworn in as Afghanistan's first popularly elected president.
Ten years ago: President-elect Barack Obama introduced retired Gen. Eric Shinseki (shin-SEHK'-ee) as his choice to head the Veterans Affairs Department. Actress-singer Barbra Streisand, actor Morgan Freeman, country singer George Jones, dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp and musicians Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey of The Who received Kennedy Center Honors.
Five years ago: North Korea freed an 85-year-old U.S. veteran of the Korean War after a weekslong detention, ending the saga of Merrill Newman's attempt to visit the North as a tourist six decades after he oversaw a group of South Korean wartime guerrillas still loathed by Pyongyang.
One year ago: Democratic Sen. Al Franken said he would resign after a series of sexual harassment allegations; he took a parting shot at President Donald Trump, describing him as "a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault." Republican Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona said he would resign, after revealing that he discussed surrogacy with two female staffers. A brush fire driven by gusty winds exploded north of San Diego, destroying mobile homes in a retirement community and killing race horses at a training facility. A white former South Carolina police officer, Michael Slager, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the fatal shooting of an unarmed black motorist, Walter Scott, in North Charleston in 2015. Demonstrators in the Gaza Strip burned U.S. flags and pictures of President Trump, and Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli forces in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, after Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
From the Chicago Tribune:
In the early 1990s, with the nation besieged by a surge in violence and a crack epidemic, the American public and its leaders decided that there was no such thing as being too tough on crime. Federal and state laws provided stiffer sentences for a variety of offenses; new “three strikes” laws mandated life terms for habitual offenders. Between 1990 and 2009, the number of inmates in federal and state prisons doubled.
The upside of that shift was that a lot of dangerous people were taken off the streets for a long time. It no doubt contributed to the dramatic decline in crime that the nation has seen. But as the crime rate has plummeted, the prison population has only inched down. And it’s become clear that incarceration, like any useful method, can be taken too far.
The consensus for dialing back criminal penalties has now found expression in a bill called the First Step Act, which passed the House by a lopsided margin and now awaits Senate action — which it may or not get before time expires on this session of Congress. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has not committed to bring it to the floor by the end of the year.
He should, given its support among members of both parties. Thanks to the involvement of Jared Kushner, it recently won the endorsement of President Donald Trump. It has the backing of Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the Urban League as well as the Fraternal Order of Police.
The bill combines a measure of mercy with a dose of frugality and a dash of common sense. It cuts mandatory minimum sentences for serious violent or drug crimes from 20 years to 15. It gives judges more discretion to spare mandatory terms for some nonviolent drug offenders.
It would let some 2,600 inmates convicted of offenses involving crack — which carried far heavier penalties than those for the powder cocaine — petition for early release. The federal three-strikes sentence would drop from life in prison to 25 years. Prisoners would get slightly more time off their sentences for behaving themselves.
These changes will save money. Though the federal Bureau of Prisons budget was trimmed last year, it is still up 31 percent since 2007, even though the federal prison population is down by 7 percent. Older inmates serving lengthy sentences are more costly to care for — and less dangerous to release.
Some of the changes don’t involve sentences. The Bureau of Prisons would generally have to place inmates within 500 driving miles of their homes. Pregnant prisoners could no longer be shackled, and women would get free tampons and sanitary napkins.
Inmates would get help obtaining Social Security and identification cards upon release. More money would go to mental health and substance abuse treatment.
Some conservatives, notably Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., think the changes go too far and some liberals, such as Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., have said they don’t go far enough. But such complaints are to be expected of any legislation that is designed to appeal to liberals, conservatives and moderates. The package is a modest set of reforms that should help inmates and taxpayers without creating undue risks.
“I’ve been working on this issue for nearly eight years, and we have never been closer than we are right now,” Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said recently. President Trump has pledged to sign the bill if the Senate sends it to his desk, and McConnell should give his colleagues that opportunity.