A father and son unite the nation

On a stage at Long Island University earlier this fall, I asked President George W. Bush if he remembered any profound moments between him and his father during his presidency. He did not have to think long.

It was at the memorial service held for the victims of the 9/11 attacks at the National Cathedral, just three days after the tragedy. Bush had just spoken on national television to a shocked and grieving nation. When he finished and took his seat next to his wife Laura, he felt a hand reach across to hold his. It was his dad. It was the reassuring grasp of a father with a son who bore the weight of a new world on his shoulders.

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At that same cathedral, President George H.W. Bush will lay today. His lifetime of public service will be honored and celebrated by a grateful nation. But in a sense, today we do not simply mourn a president. We mourn the slow passing of a type of presidency. That was when humility was a virtue, not a character flaw. It was when the presidency was an institution whose occupant was a trustee, in every sense of the word.

To be clear, George H.W. Bush, like most politicians, could deploy elbows both sharp and low, particularly with his 1988 election ad featuring Willie Horton. But that was when often ugly campaigns ultimately transitioned to governing. Of course, a key tenant of governing was, as President Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, to “bind up the nation’s wounds.”

Most American presidents, certainly the one we mourn today, shared certain norms. They built alliances to protect freedom and promote democracy. They advanced our ideals rather than retreated from the world stage. Most, but not all, adhered to the vital notion that the White House is an institution more important than the person who occupied it.

They also relied on the counsel of the men and women around them. On that stage on Long Island, I asked George W. Bush if he ever sought his father’s advice. His response: “If I had he would have told me to send my briefers to him in Houston or Maine then he would give me advice.”

How is that for quaint? In the White House, listening to those in front of you is preferable to browbeating others for attention. As the president, receiving private unvarnished counsel is better than the public waving of pink slips. The highest office in the land deserves this kind of respect.

When we bury George H.W. Bush, I hope we do not bury the qualities we once called presidential. Dignity and empathy. The righteous exercise of power to spread our values and resist tyranny. The understanding that the only word that counts in the title “President the United States” is united.

Presidents come and they go. They are like meteors blazing across our political firmament at a moment in time. Then they pass and fade. They are, up to this point at least, men. They are fathers and sons, sometimes clasping hands in dark moments. Most of all, they leave us with hope.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years. He served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is a novelist whose latest book is “Big Guns.” You can follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael and Facebook @RepSteveIsrael.