On the last night of the Republican National Convention in 1988, the candidate sought to impart to the country a vision of the America it could be.
“Some,” he said, “would say it’s soft and insufficiently tough to care” about troubled children. “But where is it written, that we must act as if we do not care, as if we are not moved? Well, I am moved. I want a kinder, gentler nation.”
And at the end of that speech, he made a promise: “I will keep America moving forward, always forward, for a better America, for an endless, enduring dream and a thousand points of light.”
Those words would enter the political lexicon, but in one sense, there was nothing remarkable about what George H.W. Bush said. Presidents - and those who want to be president - have always sought to weave poetry from the prose of our daily lives, to ennoble our strivings and speak to what another Republican once called “the better angels of our nature.”
That’s what statesmen did once upon a time. But America has seldom seemed further from statesmanship - or from the vision Bush articulated - than it does now as the 41st president passes from the scene.
He died just days after the United States used teargas against asylum seekers, including children in diapers, after a handful of boys and men threw rocks at a border checkpoint in San Diego.
He was eulogized in Washington as lame duck Republican legislator in Wisconsin brazenly strong-armed democracy and lifted a middle finger to the will of the people, voting to strip power from the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general.
He was memorialized in Texas as investigators in North Carolina probed an alleged scheme in which an operative working for a GOP candidate collected absentee ballots from voters in Democratic areas and diverted them from the ballot box.
These are the kinds of things that seem to happen every day in the thugocracy America has become. And that speaks to how thoroughly America rejected the vision of itself Bush offered 30 years ago.
No nation can be called kind or gentle that uses gas against children. And any nation where the right of the people to choose their own path is stolen by dirty tricks or mugged by political gangsters is a nation walking under a thousand points of shadow, not light.
Think what you will of Bush. Criticize his Willie Horton ad as a despicable dog whistle to the nation’s abiding racism, condemn him for his inaction against AIDS and for escalating the ruinous War on Drugs. Laud him for his firm but measured response to Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait, his signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act or his support for climate science.
But understand that ultimately, the successes and failures of his public life have little to do with the very particular sense of loss some of us feel as the last president of the Greatest Generation takes his leave. There is always a sense of moment when a president dies. But the death of this president, this decent man, seems to close one of the few remaining doors between us and that time when presidents made poetry of our prose and you didn’t wake up every day to some new thugocratic outrage.
“Some have said this is an end of an era,” Bush’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. Russell Jones Levenson, Jr., said during his eulogy in Washington. “But it doesn’t have to be. Perhaps this is an invitation to fill the void that has been left behind.”
We can only hope. Because this moment is haunted by a curious and sobering duality. Some people mourn for George H.W. Bush, yes.
But some of us mourn for America, too.