George Herbert Walker Bush, who died last week at the age of 94, leaves a complicated legacy. History will sort it out.

This week, however, we honor the office as much as we bury the man. Bush will receive a state funeral not because he was the decent and service-minded person so many people say he was, but because he held our most powerful office, one of a very few to have that power and responsibility.

The funeral will follow guidelines that go back to the mid-1800s, when William Henry Harrison became the first president to die in office. Bush’s casket was placed for viewing under the Capitol rotunda, on the same wooden structure first used for the casket of Abraham Lincoln following his assassination in 1865. Wednesday, the day of the funeral, has been proclaimed a national day of mourning.

The commitment to ritual and pageantry connects this moment to those through time. It highlights the bonds we have as Americans under the people to whom we grant power, and recognizes the high aspirations we have for those we choose as president, even if they don’t always meet them.

Bush himself may have appreciated that dynamic. He was more reflective than most presidents about his own shortcomings – at least he was more open about it. And though ego drives every powerful politician to some extent, Bush seemed to see himself more as a functionary and public servant than a historical figure in the making.

As president, Bush famously said he had no time for “that vision thing,” focused as he was on getting the job done rather than changing the country. He had no patience for legacy, either – “the L-word,” he called it – as his patrician upbringing taught him not to brag, and he felt that when it came to history, only time would tell anyway.


Of course, not everyone has the luxury of putting off judgment. Not everyone can point to Bush’s successes – the leadership following the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S.-led coalition to eject Iraq from Kuwait in the Gulf War – and sweep away everything else.

There is no question, for instance, that the policies toward the poor that were engineered during Ronald Reagan’s presidency – with Bush as vice president – and continued under Bush were harmful, or that the unconscionable inaction on the AIDS crisis in the same era killed thousands of Americans. Or that the racist Willie Horton ad that propelled Bush into the presidency changed both criminal justice policy and campaigning significantly for the worse. Or that his “war on drugs” ruined countless lives.

It’s hard to set aside those actions by George H.W. Bush, a man of great position and power, even if Bush the person was, by many accounts, kind, giving and thoughtful. Bush was a public servant, but he was certainly compromised – by his privilege, by his power and, in part, by the time he came from, all of which gave him glaring blind spots.

That’s a lot to balance in one’s mind. But we don’t really have to now. Now, we have to say goodbye to a president – and all that comes with that.

The death of a president doesn’t have to be a call to pick sides. We can mark Bush’s passing as it relates to our history and the passage of power from one generation to the next. We can observe, even honor, an extraordinary American life without eulogizing.

And the rest? Time will tell.

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