By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 12, 2004
In their back-to-back eulogies at Washington National Cathedral yesterday, the presidents Bush revealed much about Ronald Reagan -- and about themselves.
The 41st and 43rd presidents, father and son, had never matched oratorical skills on the same national stage before yesterday's funeral for the 40th president. As they spoke of Reagan -- political rival and then boss of the elder Bush, ideological mentor of the younger Bush -- the two men showed that their shared blood does not mean they share the same style or even necessarily the same world view.
George H.W. Bush's speech was personal and emotional; he choked up and paused to compose himself as he confided: "As his vice president for eight years, I learned more from Ronald Reagan than from anyone I encountered in all my years of public life." George W. Bush's eulogy was biographical and devoid of personal anecdote; he traced Reagan's movement, "from Dixon to Des Moines to Hollywood to Sacramento to Washington, D.C."
George H.W. Bush's self-penned speech was conversational -- he joked about White House squirrels and Reagan's remark that a meeting with Bishop Desmond Tutu was "so-so" -- sometimes tending toward Hallmark sentiment; "Nancy was there for him always," he said. George W. Bush's speech, more than twice as long, was stylishly crafted by White House speechwriters; "Ronald Reagan belongs to the ages now, but we preferred it when he belonged to us," he said, paraphrasing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton at Abraham Lincoln's death.
In a broader sense, though, the Bushes yesterday identified in Ronald Reagan the separate traits that have defined each of them in the public's eye. The elder Bush, known for courtliness and decency, emphasized Reagan's civility and humility. Reagan "never made an adversary into an enemy," he said. He recalled Reagan's crack to doctors in the emergency room after the 1981 assassination attempt -- "I hope you're all Republicans" -- then remembered: "Days after being shot, weak from wounds, he spilled water from a sink, and entering the hospital room, aides saw him on hands and knees wiping water from the floor. He worried that his nurse would get in trouble."
The younger Bush, by contrast, emphasized Reagan's ideological firmness, and his fierce opposition to communism and big government. He spoke of Reagan's commitment to entrepreneurship, freedom, and the struggle of good against evil -- all themes of his own administration. "President Reagan was optimistic about the great promise of economic reform, and he acted to restore the rewards and spirit of enterprise," the president said. "He was optimistic that a strong America could advance the peace, and he acted to build the strength that mission required. He was optimistic that liberty would thrive wherever it was planted and he acted to defend liberty wherever it was threatened. . . . When he saw evil camped across the horizon, he called that evil by its name."
"It showed their different styles," said Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who worked in the elder Bush's White House and is close to the current president. The younger Bush "was very pointed at times," Portman said, and "took us to another plane in larger, broader strokes." The elder Bush "did not have the rhetorical flourishes his son's speech had," but "it was the most personal, the most humorous. The emotion he showed was the most emotion we heard today."
Scholars and political strategists have often observed that the current president models his presidency after Reagan's, and that he is determined to avoid the mistakes made by his father, whose insufficient fealty to tax cuts and other conservative causes was seen by some Republicans as having contributed to his failure to win reelection. Though he did not compare himself to Reagan yesterday, Bush used many of the words and images he and his aides often use to define his presidency.
"Our 40th president wore his title lightly, and it fit like a white Stetson," said Bush, who is wearing such a hat in the main photo on his campaign Web site. Bush said Reagan's beliefs "never had much to do with fashion or convenience," and remembered how he "matched an optimistic temperament with bold, persistent action" -- characteristics Bush and his aides have emphasized in this administration.
Perhaps the biggest difference between father and son in their eulogies was the way they portrayed Reagan's religious faith. The elder Bush wears his faith privately, as Reagan did. His eulogy made only a passing reference to "the Good Book" and said he consulted the Rev. Billy Graham to request "a Bible passage that might be appropriate." (Graham chose Psalms 37.)
The younger Bush, by contrast, identifies more closely with the evangelical Christian movement than with his father's mainline Protestantism, and he routinely fills his speeches with religious references. Though his father described Reagan in almost exclusively secular terms, Bush spoke at length of Reagan as a religious figure.
He recalled Reagan's boyhood town as a place "where you prayed side by side with your neighbors," and attested that Reagan believed "we should strive to know and do the will of God." Bush said Reagan considered America "the hope of the world" -- a biblical phrase -- and "believed in the Golden Rule and in the power of prayer." Bush often recites a version of the Golden Rule and extols the virtues of prayer in his speeches.
Speaking of Reagan's tranquility in the face of death, Bush asked: "Where is that courage learned? It is the faith of a boy who read the Bible with his mom. It is the faith of a man lying in an operating room who prayed for the one who shot him before he prayed for himself. It is the faith of a man with a fearful illness who waited on the Lord to call him home."
Bush then invoked a passage from 2 Corinthians, saying Reagan "saw through a glass darkly" in his last years. "Now he sees his Savior face to face. And we look for that fine day when we will see him again, all weariness gone, clear of mind, strong and sure and smiling again, and the sorrow of this parting gone forever."