When president George H.W. Bush died, Americans from Left to Right saluted his principles, his upbringing, his presidency, his commitment to duty, honor and country. But, let’s be honest: the rituals were moving; the tributes, lovely; and the hypocrisy, overwhelming.
To hear so many Democrats praising George H.W. Bush, was as convincing as hearing Met fans praise the Yankees – or Jerusalemites praise Tel Aviv.
From 1989 to 1993, Democrats didn’t just disagree with President Bush – they hated him. They mocked him. Most abhorred his values – the ones they praised so enthusiastically this week. “Duty, honor, country” to most liberals were not lovely values to pine for, but tools of oppression to reject. The cultural elites of Hollywood, New York, Cambridge and Washington, who shaped the conversation – especially for most Jews and journalists – viewed George Bush’s sense of duty as slavishness, his commitment to honor as posturing, his love of country as borderline fascist.
Fortunately for Bush – and for those who believe in those ideals – he lived long enough to be vindicated.
The presidencies of George W. Bush and Donald Trump boosted Bush’s reputation. Democrats hated George W. Bush so much, they tried pretending they liked his father and his father’s boss for eight years – Ronald Reagan – to make their obsessive hatred of Bush Jr credible. And, last week, celebrating George H.W. Bush’s “duty, honor, country” became a not-very-subtle counterattack to Trump’s assault on traditional notions of presidential decency and civility.
As an historian, I could quote one Democratic attack after another on George H.W. Bush and his values. I could also catch quite a number of Republicans who eulogized Bush so movingly, mocking Bush mercilessly three decades ago for not being Ronald Reagan.
Years ago, however, Reagan’s secretary of education, William Bennett, championed “constructive hypocrisy,” meaning at least trying to stretch, honoring certain values, even if you fall short. In essence, when the alternative is a consistent vulgarity, hypocrisy is a virtue. Bennett’s problem with Democrats back then – and it’s even worse today – was that too many of them, in justifying baby boomers’ if-it-feels-good-do-it, sex, drugs, rockn’roll behavior, didn’t just indulge, but tried justifying their behavior by rejecting traditional forms of morality, of any restraints. Reaganite Republicans indulged no less – but felt guilty more. That constructive hypocrisy, at least, preserved some traditional ideals, even while transgressing.
Similarly, the wise Yiddishist and contemporary essayist, Prof. Ruth Wisse, insightfully calls Israeli reverse hypocrites. Hypocrites never live up to their lofty words; reverse hypocrites are never as rotten as they claim to be. Many Israelis – especially liberals – love denigrating, sounding cynical, trash-talking their country’s politics daily. Yet Left and Right unite to fight patriotically, selflessly, when necessary, help one another out constantly, and tear up at national ceremonies frequently. By contrast, too many American conservatives are laptop warriors, talking aggressively without ever having served in the military – see Trump and former US vice president Richard Cheney – but not George H.W. Bush.
That’s why all the hypocrisy surrounding George H.W. Bush’s death thrilled me. I didn’t fall for the weaponization of Bushophilia to bash Trump and implicitly say, “Hey, I’m fair-minded, I could abide by Reagan or the Bushes – but this guy’s beyond the pale.”
I appreciate Bush-related hypocrisy, however, for teaching Americans and Israelis something profound. Even while opposing George H.W. Bush as candidate or president, it was not just a mistake but a sin against democracy to dismiss his values, too. Trump illustrates what happens when a president emerges who denigrates duty, who lacks honor, whose love of country is xenophobic and narcissistic. Even those who agree with his policies should acknowledge the ethical-carnage his demolition derby approach to politics leaves in its wake.
We all need brakes, filters, constraints. We all could do worse than growing up with a code, as both Presidents Bush did, of duty, honor, country. Of course, the code’s interpretation circa 1950s or 1980s needs modification – but, ahem, better to reform or reconstruct than abandon.
“Duty” suggests that for all our freedom, all our autonomy, we need to commit to others, and to something bigger than ourselves. “Honor” turns from our external obligations to our fundamental sensibilities, our personal purity – validated by how outsiders see us. And “country” weaves the other two values into that remarkable phenomenon that the Right doesn’t own and the Left shouldn’t relinquish called “nationalism.”
Constructive nationalism, liberal nationalism, traditional American nationalism – and Jewish nationalism, meaning Zionism – seek to bring out the best in us. Duty and honor are pillars of these positive nationalisms, precisely because they bond us, constrain us and elevate us. We risk being hypocrites by having higher ideals. We echo David Ben-Gurion’s aspirational assessment: when asked if Israel was fulfilling his vision, he said “not yet.”
Brutal nationalists, xenophobic nationalists, those who succumb to the vices of in-group bonding have the virtue of not being hypocrites.
I cast my lot with the dreamers.
George H.W. Bush’s funeral – and the outpouring of love last week – showed that whatever his flaws, Bush was a great American nationalist, a true patriot. The tributes also demonstrated that whatever Donald Trump’s accomplishments, for all his red-white-and-blue bluster, his aggressiveness, selfishness, divisiveness, and xenophobia are ultimately un-American; they give nationalism a bad name.
That’s why I was happy to see Bush honored as a contrast to Trump, and that’s why I’m a Trump critic – even as I thank him for all he’s done for Israel.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” the writer is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.