George Bush Was George Bailey: It Was a Wonderful Life

George Bush Was George Bailey: It Was a Wonderful Life
AP Photo/File
George Bush Was George Bailey: It Was a Wonderful Life
AP Photo/File
Story Stream
recent articles

As the nation says farewell to George Herbert Walker Bush, a few thoughts on the legacy and impact of America’s 41st president.

Résumé. On the same day that the late president’s remains arrived at the U.S. Capitol, former Vice President Joe Biden told a Montana audience that he considers himself “the most qualified person in the country” to serve as the nation’s 46th president.

The last successful candidate to sell the nation on the concept of résumé? That would be Bush 41 – in the 1988 election, when he trounced the less-credentialed Michael Dukakis.

Ask yourself: After the less-experienced Bill Clinton prevailed in 1992, did George W. Bush have a better political resume than Al Gore? Or Barack Obama, instead of John McCain? Or Donald Trump, rather than Hillary Clinton?

The more experienced candidates came up short, in part, because they lacked big-picture salesmanship – what Bush 41 inelegantly called “the vision thing.”

Maybe Biden can reverse that trend in 2020 and make LinkedIn sexy again in presidential politics. However, it seems counter-current at a time when the Democratic Party seems determined to find a fresh face with a populist message that’s not necessarily in line with the realpolitik of regaining Rust Belt states.

By the way, Biden attended Wednesday’s service at the National Cathedral (second row, behind four of the five living presidents, one row ahead of Ivanka Trump). If he’d found the time, he could’ve asked Jeb Bush about the merits of running in a crowded field as the most electable of the bunch.

One Term. Bush 41 passed away at the age of 94 years, 171 days. Barring the unexpected, Jimmy Carter, the nation’s 39th president and born 110 days after Bush in 1924, will set a new mark for America’s longest-living president next March (a side note: the last three presidents to perish – Bush, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan – were nonagenarians; prior to them, only Herbert Hoover and John Adams lived past their 90thbirthdays).

Come the time of the Carter remembrance, it’ll be a different staging in ways other than faith (Bush, the Texas/Maine Episcopalian; Carter the Georgia Southern Baptist)

Pundits will mark the highs of the Carter presidency (most notably, the Camp David Accords) and the many lows (the failed hostage rescue missionthe president’s “process” problem).

But one difference between the 39 and 41 services: bonhomie.

Look at photos of gatherings of the former presidents and you’ll notice a pattern: Carter usually looks detached from the group – at the edge of the picture, looking not all that comfortable.

Unlike 41, Carter never grew fond of Clinton; in 2014, Carter revealed that Obama was the one president who didn’t call him for advice. In Carter’s post-presidency, there hasn’t been a public bonding with his peers.

This isn’t to suggest that lovely sentiments won’t be expressed about Carter – his seven-decade marriage to Rosalynn; his dedication to Habitat for Humanity; his championing of human rights. There just won’t be the same good humor, as Carter doesn’t have the Bush gene for good-natured ribbing and self-deprecation.  

Dynasty. Is the Bush family a political dynasty? Bush 41’s father was a U.S. senator; his sons won the presidency and the governorships of two of the nation’s three most populous states.

But what comes next?

George H.W. was elected president at the age of 64; George W. won the office at age 52. Jeb, had he been elected in 2016, would have been 63 at the time.

Earlier last month, George P. Bush (Jeb’s son) won a second term as Texas land commissioner. The eldest of the late president’s grandchildren, he spoke at Thursday morning’s service in Houston.

Should he run for governor of Texas in 2022 (that’s assuming fellow Republican Greg Abbott doesn’t seek a third term), the new-generation George Bush would be all of 46. If you subscribe to the theory that the presidency will keep changing partisan hands every eight years into the foreseeable future, then the 2032 election lines up neatly – Bush 47, entering office at age 56.  

I’ll leave it to you to decide which dynasty is the strongest bet: the Bushes, the Clintons (a Hillary comeback; Chelsea running for office), or the Kennedys (Rep. Joe Kennedy III, JFK’s grand-nephew, ending up on a Democratic ticket).

The Train. Bush 41 went to his final resting place via rail, as opposed to a 90-minute motorcade from St. Martin’s Episcopal Church to the presidential library at Texas A&M.

This was a fitting gesture, as presidents and trains are synonymous. The remains of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt were transported by rail, as was Dwight Eisenhower (in 1969, a seven-state journey from Washington to Abilene, Kansas). Robert F. Kennedy, who had hoped to win the presidency the year before Eisenhower’s death, also was given the honor of a funeral train.

Such passage allowed the public to line up for one last view of the former president. It’s also a reminder that, while U.S. presidents have little direct contact with “average” citizens, for many Americans the loss of a president is akin to a death in the family.

One other reason why the “4141” funeral train resonates: 70 years ago, the future president resettled in the oil fields of West Texas. His was a venture into open space and emblematic of previous generations of frontiersmen who had journeyed west in search of fortune – a journey made possible for some by rail.  

George Bailey. In his remarks at the Capitol Rotunda, House Speaker Paul Ryan noted that Bush 41 led a “wonderful life.”

What an appropriate choice of words, as it’s also part of the title of the movie you can’t escape between now and Christmas.

Call it a case of life imitating art.

Bush 41 and Jimmy Stewart, the film’s star, were tall, lean Ivy Leaguers who served in the Second World War (Bush a naval aviator; Stewart an Army Air Corps bomber pilot). Each had to be prodded into talking about their decorated service. Both were male role models in that they led very public lives defined by personal humility and happy, lasting marriages devoid of personal scandal.

But George H.W. Bush was also similar to George Bailey, Stewart’s character in the film who struggles with the concept of failure.

Bush lost two Senate contests six years apart, plus the one presidential run against Ronald Reagan in 1980 and a stinging rejection in the form of voters showing him the door in 1992 (a mere 37 percent of the vote, after winning 40 states four years earlier).

But like George Bailey, George Bush understood that his life wasn’t defined by defeat. His post-presidency was 26 years of relentless cheer, optimism and testing his boundaries.

Remember the words Clarence wrote to George Bailey at the film’s end: “Dear George, remember no man is a failure who has friends.”

George Bush didn’t lack for friends.

Future presidents will be challenged to have led such a wonderful life.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow who follows California and national politics, and host of Hoover’s “Area 45” podcast on the Trump presidency. He can be reached at


Show comments Hide Comments