After the passing of President George H.W. Bush a week ago, an article describing his military service in the Second World War came across my Facebook feed. Even though I was born during the Reagan presidency, my first political memories came from Bush 41’s years, and I distinctly remember my family respecting him because he was the president the Japanese had shot down over the Pacific. Until last week I knew little else about his wartime experience, but that article and many others made me respect him more.
Graduating from an elite private high school, Bush had the opportunity to go to Yale and avoid the war. Secretary of War Henry Stimson, a graduate of the same school who spoke at his graduation, even told the young men to go to college and not join the military until the draft forced them. But the future president ignored the war secretary and enlisted into the US Navy on his eighteenth birthday in 1941 and nearly lost his life in ‘44. He could have gone home then, but went back to his aircraft carrier and completed another eight bombing runs.
While waiting in line at the US Capitol on Tuesday to see Bush lie in state, I contemplated his service in the Navy and later contributions to American foreign policy—including as an ambassador to the UN, chief of the liaison office to China, director of the CIA, vice president, and the president who oversaw the Cold War’s peaceful end. Starting outside in frigid weather and going from hall to hall in the Capitol Visitor Center, the line took nearly two hours, followed by only a few moments before the casket in the majestic Rotunda. Though many around me in the line chattered, the wait allowed a good opportunity for prayer, both thanking God for Bush’s service to our country and for those who will guide our country’s foreign policy in the future. I’m quite fortunate both to have been in DC when this solemn, historic event occurred and to have had the time available to go.
This week Providence published two articles, one by Mark Tooley and another by Daniel Strand, that reflected on President Bush and his Episcopalian faith, a perspective news outlets often omit. While I can’t know anyone’s innermost thoughts and beliefs, it does seem fair to conclude Bush was a sincere Christian. As Christians, we believe that because of Christ’s death and resurrection all who merely accept his offer of salvation, which no one deserves, shall also be resurrected and live forevermore. This knowledge directed my prayers toward thanksgiving while standing in line and before Bush’s casket because I wish I could have met him but know that someday I shall have that opportunity in the life to come. And not just him but many other brothers and sisters in Christ, including loved ones and others who are strangers now. While those few moments in the Rotunda felt awe-inspiring after a long wait, they’ll feel like meager pageantry compared to that future day.
On a somewhat unrelated topic, upon returning home from the Capitol I noticed a tweet and photo from Bush 41 earlier this year: “Special visit today with a great friend — and now, a best-selling author. Luckily I had a freshly laundered pair of @BillClinton socks to mark the occasion.” The presidents’ friendship seems odd today, especially when partisan politics bitterly divides Americans, who often become hateful. Many on Twitter who commented on Bush’s photo praised the two for their bipartisan friendship but then disparaged Trump and the Republicans. Ironic, isn’t it? Yes, we often disagree with our neighbors and family members, but as I said when I retweeted the photo, we should practice disagreeing well while respecting their God-given dignity—even on social media—whether they voted for Trump, Democrats, or even third-party candidates. We shouldn’t just look at Bush and Clinton’s friendship and think it’s wonderful they do it without concluding we should do it as well. And for Christians, how can we love our neighbors as Christ commands when we let politics ruin those relationships?
So for now I continue my prayers thanking God for Bush’s service to America and for the promise of the resurrection, and asking God to provide good foreign policy leaders and to heal the relationships our political divides have broken.
Mark Melton is Providence’s deputy editor. He earned his master’s degree in international relations from the University of St. Andrews and his bachelor’s degree in foreign language and international trade from Mississippi College.
Photo Credit: Funeral of George H.W. Bush at National Cathedral in Washington, DC, on December 5, 2018. Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks.