The nation is not mourning so much as reflecting on the death of “41,” George H.W. Bush. He was the last of an era, we are thinking, a guy who represented the best of 20th century America: the winning of World War II, civility, modesty, courage and putting others — especially the country — ahead of ourselves.
A lot has been said about the characters of “41” and “45” over the last few days. If ever there was an opposite to Bush, the epitome of smart, prepared, honest, self-effacing and kind, it’s Trump, the epitome of crass, unprepared, narcissistic, dishonest and mean.
With “41”’s death, it’s painfully evident how far we’ve come in just a few decades.
After World War II, the admirable elements of the culture, the ones embodied by 41, Bob Dole, John McCain and others, were passed down to the next generation in every way possible: family talks, books, stories and media. From Superman comics to “12 O’Clock High” to “High Noon” to Norman Rockwell paintings, they showed us what we could be, what we should be.
The educational system taught history, particularly what triggered World War II, and civics — that democracy depended on individual participation and knowledge — as much as English, math and science. Entertainment of the time was aspirational. “On The Waterfront” showed mob rule in NYC, but the hero was a good person. From “Gunsmoke” to “The Magnificent Seven” to “The Great Escape,” the culture that produced and defined “41” and his generation was celebrated and emphasized.
Over recent decades, though, many schools dropped civics, the Pledge of Allegiance and a demand for civility. Movies, plays, TV shows, books grew less aspirational and started focusing on what was “real.” The hero of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” was quashed. Wall Street celebrated lying, cheating and stealing. “The Godfather” made us love the mob. More recent TV and movies empathize with drug dealers, thieves and killers (“Get Shorty,” “Breaking Bad”). News organizations like Fox spew propaganda instead of facts.
The leaders we produced have tried to emulate, not the culture that won World War II, but the pride in winning a war that saved the world. Without a world to save, they just started wars.
We’ve gone to war to save oil (Middle East), to save real estate and political power (Vietnam, Iraq and others) and to save … face (Afghanistan). Instead of going after bin Laden and his followers for 9/11, we went to war with the country he was hiding in. Between that and our war in Iraq, we’ve lit the whole Middle East on fire. Seventeen years later and 11 years after killing Bin Laden, we’re still there with no end in sight. World War II took five years.
Today, the culture that fueled Bush’s and others’ sacrifices to save a world from a fate — literally — worse than death has gone the way of leather helmets and sandlot baseball. There are few heroes in American politics now. Ideals like truth, justice and the American Dream are parodied in slick comedies or mocked by our current president’s lies. Shared sacrifice, the glue that kept the World War II generation together, is hardly mentioned any more. It is still taught in the military, but since the end of the draft, only a minority of the country experiences or understands it.
In the decades since World War II, a culture that once considered a handshake a contract now tries to legislate morality, which is impossible; honesty is an attitude, not a piece of legislation. Cheating is rampant in schools. Stores mark items up so they can mark them down for “sales.” Advertisers tell us we “deserve” what they want us to buy — and we believe them. Where Jonas Salk invented the polio vaccine and just gave it to the world in the ’50s, pharmaceutical companies today charge thousands of dollars for a single pill. Our politicians have perfected the art of lying to the point where nobody trusts them.
Which defines the difference between “45” and “41.” Bush was an example of his culture; Trump is an example of ours. The fact is this country elected both of them. Our president’s character is not the problem we have today; it’s the culture that elected him. Our culture. Us.
In reflecting on his death, we may yearn for another George H.W. Bush. But until we rediscover civility, modesty, courage and putting others ahead of ourselves, until we model and teach it at home, at school, in the media and at work, we’re not going to get it in our leaders.