Requiescat In Pace: George H. W. Bush

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Former President George Bush has died at age 94.  I am deeply ambivalent about his role as a major player in our national life, and I think we are too close to his Presidency in time to have much perspective as to it.  However, what has always personally fascinated me about Bush is his service during World War II.  Enlisting in the Navy during World War II on his 18th birthday, he became the youngest naval aviator in 1942.  As a carrier pilot in the Pacific during the War he flew 58 combat missions.  On one of his missions he earned a Distinguished Flying Cross:

“For heroism and extraordinary achievement in aerial flight as Pilot of a Torpedo Plane in Torpedo Squadron FIFTY ONE, attached to the U.S.S. San Jacinto, in action against enemy Japanese forces in the vicinity of the Bonin Islands, on September 2, 1944. Leading one section of a four-plane division in a strike against a radio station, Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Bush pressed home an attack in the face of intense antiaircraft fire. Although his plane was hit and set afire at the beginning of his dive, he continued his plunge toward the target and succeeded in scoring damaging bomb hits before bailing out of the craft. His courage and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Reserve.” 

Like many men who survived in combat he wondered why he had been spared and what God had planned for him.  I have a friend who is 98, and part of that select fraternity of survivors who saw action as carrier pilots in the Pacific in World War II.  His matter of fact accounts have always struck me with how easy it was to die outside of enemy action.  The technology was just barely there to conduct combat carrier operations over the watery wastes of the Pacific, and it was very easy to die due to mechanical problems, simply getting lost or crashing during carrier landings, particularly at night.  When I made the obvious statement on one occasion that it took a very brave man to do what he had done, he denied it.  He said simply that the country had a job that needed to be accomplished, and that he and his shipmates simply did their duty to the best of their ability.

Bush is the last of the presidents to have seen combat service in World War II, and with his passing, and the passing of the men he served with, a special spirit is passing from our national life.  God willing, may we see it again in our hour of need.


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  1. God bless and keep George H W Bush.

    Now his “thousand points of light” may be seen with new eyes. No more a metaphor. Surrounded in brilliant light. My rosary is going out for the repose of his soul on this first Saturday.

    (Beautiful tribute Mr. McClarey.)

  2. Grant him eternal rest, oh Lord, and may your perpetual light shine upon him.

    Not perfect (who is?), but I would say better than any of his successors, More of a “technician” for running the government than a candidate for reelection

  3. I imagine he’s been ready since losing his wife, if not earlier.

    Great deal to be said for him as a man (and little to be said against him). His qualities made him atypical among his contemporaries and are rare among succeeding cohorts. Evaluating him as a public figure we can put off for now.

  4. I can agree with everything in that obituary — the admiration for the bravery and sacrifice of Bush as a young man, and the ambivalence towards his presidency.

  5. I suppose the most significant service Bush provided was to provide a steady hand as the Warsaw Pact and then the Soviet Union crumbled. It would have been easy to overreact in a way that could have triggered a war in which everyone would lose. It would have been easy, facing an uncertain future, to prop up a regime founded on and dependent on evil. No doubt some subtle influence was exerted behind the scenes, but it did not make the mistake of attempting to DIRECT history.

    There are many things he did and many things he failed to do that merit disapproval, but, given the stakes, this was his most important test as president, and he passed it. It may seem that his virtue was inaction, but an uneventful end to the Cold War is an amazing accomplishment.

  6. Rest in peace, sir.

    My husband got to shake his hand– when he was a little kid, on Coronado island. The secret service would allow the presidents to go out on the beach there, so they all did!

  7. I think Bush’s political legacy is two-fold: First, he served for a time as one of the living examples of the political truism that “nice guys finish last,” a dubious but necessary distinction he shared with John McCain (who was not a nice guy, but campaigned as one). Now that they’re both gone, we’ll have to wait for the media lickspittles among the professional GOP class to persuade a would-be President to assume the mantle.

    His second dubious legacy is to serve (hopefully) as a reminder to all future Republican Presidents of the dangers of making grand-bargain type deals with Democrats. At least Reagan waited until his second term to attempt his grand bargain on immigration reform.

  8. @Ernst Schreiber — I can only agree with your comment about John McCain if you mean he campaigned to be a good loser in the presidential election rather than as someone who might actually defeat Obama. He got the praise he desired from the Democrats. He will get none from me.

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