Jon Meacham, having written a book about former president George H.W. Bush, was ideally suited to deliver one of the eulogies at Washington National Cathedral on Wednesday. Putting Bush’s presidency in the larger sweep of history he said, “George Herbert Walker Bush was America’s last great soldier-statesman, a 20th century founding father. He governed with virtues that most closely resemble those of Washington and of Adams, of TR and of FDR, of Truman and of Eisenhower, of men who believed in causes larger than themselves.”
Meacham’s “20th century founding father” is an intriguing turn of phrase, one that can be read in at least three ways.
George H.W. Bush was the father of one president and of a governor. His grandson George P. Bush is commissioner of the Texas General Land Office. The forest of Bushes that populated Washington National Cathedral was an impressive reminder that Bush led one of the great American families -- one that includes politicians, lawyers, philanthropists, authors and, above all, public-minded citizens. In that sense Bush “founded” a modern political dynasty rivaled only by the Kennedys and the Roosevelts, and he remained throughout his life an example, a mentor and a cheerleader for two generations of Bushes.
That doesn’t seem to be what Meacham was driving at, however. Another interpretation is that Bush channeled the original Founding Fathers' virtues and embodied their devotion to “causes larger than themselves.”
Even in the 1980s he was a bit of a throwback to an era of letter writing, genteel manners and self-sacrifice. Meacham here reached back to Lincoln. “Abraham Lincoln’s ‘better angels of our nature’ and George H.W. Bush’s ‘thousand points of light’ are companion verses in America’s national hymn. For Lincoln and Bush both called on us to choose the right over the convenient, to hope rather than to fear, and to heed not our worst impulses, but our best instincts.” It’s always dicey to compare a modern politician to Lincoln, but in connecting their “companion verses” Meacham suggests that a critical quality of an original or a modern founding father is the ability to lift up the country, to push us closer to the “more perfect union.”
Meacham may have been telling us something else by use of the phrase “20th century founding father.” America and its democracy are remade by each generation, which must defend democracies, keep the peace and reconcile with their diverse fellow Americans. Ronald Reagan put it this way: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.” Meacham, in other words, may have been telling us (and all those politicians listening in the cathedral) that the group of “Founding Fathers” does not consist only of those men in wigs and silk breeches, but of those who lead and reconstitute American democracy in every generation. We are constantly remaking and re-founding the country and, hence, in constant need of new founders.
If that is what Meacham intended by “Founding Fathers,” his words should reassure but also challenge us. It’s comforting to know we get the chance (provided we don’t wreck the system) to try to get it right over and over again. In each generation we get the benefit of those who preceded us and another crack at perfecting democracy. It’s the vision of continuing (if not constant) change. Meacham’s phrase, however, also places a heavy burden on leaders and citizens of every generation. We cannot rely only on TR, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower and Bush; we have to find in our own times leaders to inspire, challenge and console us.
We’ve lost two American giants this year -- John McCain and George H.W. Bush. Both warriors, both devoted to an ethical code of conduct, both good humored, both cognizant of America’s role in the world and both certain that there is something more important than party or self. They left us at a difficult, maddening, depressing time in our history. But soon we’ll be in another presidential election cycle, and perhaps we’ll find another “founding father” to bring us along the path to a more perfect union.