Thursday, Apr. 19, 2018
Tags: Audio, Barbara Bush, George H.W. Bush, James Comey
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Thursday, April 19, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The indispensable role First Ladies have played in American history
On Tuesday night, Americans noted with sadness the death of Barbara Bush, the former First Lady of the United States who died at age 92. Just days before, the family had announced that she was nearing the end of life and had foregone further medical intervention and was instead receiving what was described as comfort care. That kind of signal coming from the official office of the former President George H.W. Bush is the kind of announcement that signals to the public and to the media that death is considered to be imminent, and it was. Barbara Bush died surrounded by family and friends, and she died as she had said very clearly after living what she considered to be a very full life.
The deeper historical significance of this news causes us to reflect, first of all, upon the fact that we do talk about First Ladies of the United States. We talk about Barbara Bush now as the late former First Lady of the United States, but that title, First Lady, doesn’t appear in the U.S. Constitution. It’s not a legal title actually. Instead, it is a title of political necessity and a title of cultural influence. One of the things that Christians need to think about here is the fact that from the very beginning, going back to the first President George Washington, the strength of the institution of marriage is such that Americans in this experiment and representative democracy, even in creating the Office of President and Chief Executive of the nation understand that marriage means that you're never merely electing a president. You're electing a president who is married, and that makes a difference.
Furthermore, the necessity of social interaction and cultural influence means that when the president is involved in a major issue, his wife is involved, especially in affairs of state. The more ceremonial and the more public, the more obvious this becomes, but it’s not just a publican ceremonial. Anyone who understands marriage understands that the private influence is of vastly greater significance than the public symbolism, so throughout American history, one of the big questions about a president, thus far, all men, is what would be the influence or what was the influence of the wife.
As we’re thinking about politics and culture, we should also understand that there is a necessarily symbolism involved in the United States presidency. Here’s where we need to pause and reflect that going all the way back to 1789 and George Washington, what is represented by the American presidency is a direct democratic replacement of the hereditary monarchy, so you have the President and the First Lady replacing the hereditary king and queen.
If you put this in the context of history, then the American President and First Lady become the republican replacement. That’s a little R as in constitutional republic of the monarchy as is present most importantly in nations such as the nation from which we separated in the revolution, the United Kingdom, Great Britain. Furthermore, given the centrality of this couple to the public life of the United States, there’s always a great deal of speculation amongst the public. What is the relationship between the President and the First Lady? Are they always in agreement?
One of the big things of American politics ever since the 1940s has been the realization that within the White House, even within the private quarters, even within the presidential bedroom, there just might be a difference of opinion even on matters of national and international stature. Americans were probably first introduced to this kind of major speculation during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt when there was a great deal of cultural understanding. After all, this was a president who was elected four times to the presidency. There was a great deal of public understanding about the fact that Eleanor Roosevelt, at times, politically differed with her husband. There’s always a question about the degree of intimacy or the lack of intimacy between the President and the First Lady. Again, we go back to Eleanor Roosevelt who, at times, didn't even live in the White House with FDR.
Then, you get to the unprecedented celebrity around President John F. Kennedy and you recognized that at times, his celebrity was eclipsed by the celebrity of his wife, Jackie. JFK reflected that sometimes himself in his comments at a state event in Paris when they were making a visit, the President of the United States identified himself as the man who accompanied Jackie Kennedy to Paris. Following through more recent American history, a great deal of attention was played to the public role exercised by Lady Bird Johnson and then in contrast, the relatively quiet and private life of Pat Nixon.
Then, you fast forward through the moral revolution and recognize that you have a figure such as First Lady Betty Ford who was herself a catalyst for that revolution. She spoke of the sex lives of her unmarried children. She spoke also, for instance, of her very public support for the Equal Rights Amendment and for a broader range of feminist concerns. Rosalynn Carter was understood to be the inseparable partner from President Jimmy Carter, and the same was true of Nancy Reagan, the First Lady married to President Ronald Reagan.
The liberal media like to refer to Nancy Reagan as the lady in red who played the part of Lady Macbeth, but there could be no question that Nancy Reagan, the second wife of President Ronald Reagan played an indispensable role. She was a former actress as he was a former actor, and they had a bond that was the wonder of Washington even if their relationship was not understood outside the marriage. Nancy Reagan herself, even though she had a public role, kept most of her thoughts very privately.
Then, that brings us to Barbara Bush. Barbara Bush was an extrovert whereas Nancy Reagan had been an introvert. When George H.W. Bush was elected the 41st President of the United States in 1988, there was an immediate contrast in the American mind between the petite and elegant, very private Nancy Reagan, and the unpetite and rather elegant in her own style but extroverted Barbara Bush. Barbara Bush had been in love with George Bush ever since they met when he was 17 and she was 16, and she had been, again, indispensable throughout his very long and very remarkable political career.
Speaking of her own self-deprecating sense of humor, when Mrs. Bush became the First Lady of the United States, she said this quote. “My mail tells me that a lot of fat, white-haired, wrinkled ladies are tickled pink.” Even Americans who voted against her husband seemed to love Barbara Bush. She had a very open personality. She was furthermore in her own unpretentious style, the representation of a former era in American politics.
Former First Lady Barbara Bush dies at 92: Remembering her life and legacy
That takes us to an even deeper level of understanding the meaning, as we’re thinking in worldview analysis, of the death of Barbara Bush. When you look at President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush as First Lady of the United States, and then you look to the present, you are looking across a vast chasm of cultural influence. To put the matter bluntly, George and Barbara Bush, the 41st President of the United States and his First Lady, represent the very last high water mark of the so-called East Coast establishment in American politics and cultural influence. What we need to think about here is that until fairly recent times, American politics was dominated by two parties that were actually marked by how much they shared in common rather than by how much they differed.
As George Wallace, the famously insurgent governor of Alabama said in the late 1960s, “There isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the Democrats and the Republicans.” If you’d go back to the 1960 platforms of the Democratic and Republican parties, you would hard-pressed to detect much difference. In the economic establishment, the financial establishment, the political establishment, the cultural establishment, and most importantly, in the foreign policy establishment, there was a vast bipartisan consensus.
One of the reasons for that is that virtually all of those who served in major political leadership emerged from the very same region and the very same political class. One of the reasons the Democrats and Republicans were so close during those decades is that they went to the same schools. They grew up in the same neighborhoods. Their parents knew each other and were in business together. They had worked for the same law firms. They were members of the same fraternities and sororities. That established a common worldview. The great distinction back then, if you’re thinking about a year such as 1950, was between the political class and the rest of America.
Barbara Pierce, later Barbara Bush, is the perfect representation of that class. Her father became the publishing titan behind the McCall’s publishing empire. She is the distant relative to the 14th President of the United States, Franklin Pierce with whom she shared a last name before she was married. Her personal lineage can be traced right back to the Mayflower. That’s a certain form of pseudo royalty in the United States. It represents the very origins and the inner ring of that East Coast establishment.
George Bush came from a similar kind of family. His father, by the time they were married, was Prescott Bush, a United States senator. The Bushes and the Pierces were among two of the most venerable names of the East Coast establishment, and they were educated and reared in that kind of environment. Barbara Pierce, later Barbara Bush, attended the Milton School and then the private Rye Country Day School. Her high school years were spent in a boarding school in Charleston, South Carolina known as Ashley Hall.
She would after attend Smith College, one of the elite women’s colleges of the Northeast establishment. At the same time, her future husband, George H.W. Bush, the son of a U.S. senator was attending Phillips Academy and later, Yale University. Between Phillips Academy and Yale University, George H.W. Bush would become a war hero in World War II. On leave as a naval aviator, George H.W. Bush married Barbara Pierce in Rye, New York on January the 6th, 1945, so when Barbara Bush died at age 92 on Tuesday night, the Bushes have been married for 73 years, and endurance of marriage that, at this point, exceeds that of any other president of the United States.
When Barbara Bush dropped out of Smith College to marry George Bush, she said, “The truth is I just wasn’t interested. I was just interested in George.” That trajectory of East Coast political influence and cultural affluence continued with the Bushes through the years that he went to Texas and established his own private fortune in oil, and then when he was elected to Congress and became very active in Republican politics. Later, after a failed senate run, also from Texas, George Bush was appointed by President Richard M. Nixon as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations.
Then, during the troubled period of Watergate, he became the chairman of the Republican National Committee. Later, President Gerald Ford sent him to China. This is after Nixon’s famous falling of relationships with China and George Bush became the first director of the Office of Liaison between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Later, he was appointed director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and then in 1980, after he ran for the Republican presidential nomination and lost to Ronald Reagan, Reagan asked him to be his vice presidential nominee and they were elected in November of 1980. That’s when most Americans came to understand the existence of Barbara Bush.
Soon after the inauguration of the Reagans and the Bushes in 1981, Americans began to note the difference between Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush, and when President George H.W. Bush was elected the 41st President of the United States in 1988, there was something of a thaw in relationships between the National Press and the First Lady, a very different occupant of that role, but this is where we also need to understand that one of the private influences of many First Ladies, and this is a pattern to watch, many of the First Ladies, many of the wives of Republican presidents who have held very conservative positions, many of those wives have differed politically from their husbands, and generally, they have differed to the left.
Even as Nancy Reagan was famously committed to President Ronald Reagan, there was no question that a similar kind of commitment was represented by Barbara Bush to George Bush, but it was a very different kind of relationship. Barbara Bush wasn’t Betty Ford, but nonetheless, it was widely assumed and often even leaked to the media that she held positions on moral issues including questions like abortion that were to the left of her husband.
How the cultural establishment maintains their cultural standing in the midst of a sexual revolution
Here’s another huge lesson when we’re thinking about the death of Barbara Bush and what it means about that shift of authority in American politics from the East Coast bipartisan establishment to a very different age in American politics. Back in the year 2013, I criticized both President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush for attending a same-sex wedding ceremony. As I said at the time in 2013, that was a political act, it was a moral act, it was a publicly signaling act.
Immediately after Barbara Bush’s death on Tuesday night, the lead obituary in one of America’s most influential LGBT periodicals mentioned my criticism of the Bushes in their lead obituary, but the larger lesson here is that when it comes to that private influence, it is almost always real, but even insiders, even those in the inner ring of the White House would have a difficult time understanding exactly how that works. That’s just the nature of marriage, but morally speaking, when you think about that bipartisan consensus that represented the political elite in the United States, there’s something else we need to note. One way or another, the East Coast establishment has made its piece with every major moral revolution. That’s how it has traditionally held onto its influence.
Even as the famously, culturally conservative Bushes attended a gay marriage ceremony, they were making a statement that appears to be the perfectly timed statement of the East Coast establishment. There’s a revolution that’s happened in morality adjust to it. That kind of vast cultural establishment wields a very significant cultural influence, but make no mistake. That kind of establishment maintains its influence not by bucking the moral trends, but by eventually joining them.
Still, there was something deeply traditional about the fact that Barbara Bush spoke of herself and of her legacy by saying, “I want to be known as a wife, a mother, a grandmother.” If nothing else, Barbara Bush appears to have understood that the most important influence she would ever have, even as First Lady of the United States, was at home with her husband, with their children, with their extended family, with her grandchildren. Even living life on a vast world stage, she understood that most important stage was at home.
The convoluted question of character in politics: Does James Comey really demonstrate a 'higher loyalty'?
Next, even as we reflect upon the meaning of the death of Barbara Bush, we need to recognize that that former political establishment also represented a certain kind of personal and political modesty, something that’s nearly entirely missing from the political scene today. In contrast to the kind of political and personal modesty that was reflected by that East Coast establishment, an establishment that understood the importance of personal character and of public life, what we have now in Washington is a virtual war of persons who play by a very different set of rules on very side, apparently on all sides.
Nothing as indicated has changed more than the news that has come in recent days subsequent to the release of the memoir by the former director of the FBI James Comey. The title of his book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership. In the book and in the major media interviews beginning last weekend, it is abundantly clear, as the New York Times said in its front page story, the former director of the FBI has launched an all-out war against President Donald Trump. Comey has accused the President of being morally unfit for office and a stain on the Oval Office. This all-out attack that amounts to a declaration of war by the former FBI director is ricocheting and reverberating not only around the corridors of American politics but around the world, especially in world capitals as well.
Before turning to James Comey, thinking just about President Donald J. Trump, it’s important to understand that as a businessman, as a political candidate, and as President of the United States, Donald Trump has publicly, explicitly, and energetically thrown out all of the rules, including the moral rules, that guided the affairs of presidents and politicians, particularly the 44 presidents of the United States before him.
As a businessman, Donald Trump announced that he was operating business by a completely different set of rules, even when it came to the definition of truth and the negotiation of deals. When it came to running his presidential candidate, Donald Trump broke every rule, not only of Republican presidential politics, but of the presidential politics of either party, but he won the nomination. When he was elected president in 2016 and when he took office in January of 2017, rather than returning to the conventional political playbook as many had assumed he would, he continued to break all the rules and does so publicly and in a very self-avowed context even until now.
President Trump is, by every single estimation, not an institutionalist. In Washington terms, that means that he doesn’t have a great deal of respect for the longstanding political institutions that are at the very center of American democracy. Now, he ran a candidacy against many of those institutions so this can hardly be a surprise, but here you have, between James Comey and Donald Trump, a conflict between the ultra-institutionalist and the President elected as an anti-institutionalist.
Now, that was probably meant for disaster from the beginning, but as this book makes very clear, it was a disaster, if anything, even before the beginning of the Trump presidency. The book is entitled A Higher Loyalty, that’s not subtle in its meaning. He says it’s about truth, lies, and leadership and the beginning chapters of the book are very interesting when he writes about being a young federal prosecutor and U.S. attorney going after organized crime, particularly the Mafia.
When it turns to more contemporary politics when he’s director of the FBI, the situation grows very cloudy, and as you're looking at James Comey, it’s clear that he claims that he represents a higher loyalty but by the time you read the book, here’s the interesting thing that seems to be missed by many. The higher loyalty he speaks of is a loyalty to what he defines as the truth and to the institutions such as the system of justice, particularly the FBI. In an interview tied to the release of the book, Comey told USA Today that Trump “appears to lack an external moral framework of religion or philosophy or history.”
Well, that’s an interesting assessment, but even reading the book, you're hard-pressed to understand how exactly James Comey grounds his own so-called external framework or, again, we would refer to it as worldview. Reading the book, that external framework or worldview appears on the part of Comey to be rather secular even if he has spoken of the influence of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr upon his life and his thinking. In one part of the book beginning on page 62, he says, “There was once a time when most people worried about going to hell if they violated an oath taken in the name of God. That divine deterrence,” he said, “has slipped away from our modern cultures. In its place, people must fear going to jail. They must fear their lives being turned upside down. They must fear their pictures flashed on newspapers and websites. People must fear having their name forever associated with a criminal act if we are to have a nation with the rule of law.”
Now, all that was about his prosecution of Martha Stewart but it’s interesting that he says that cultural and moral authority has shifted from God to the rule of law, but turning to more contemporary issues, by the time you come to the end of this book, you certainly do not think more of President Donald Trump. The book is written so that you will think less, but simultaneously, reading the book honestly, a reader’s going to think less of James Comey. This is the kind of book that throws mud but the mud blows right back on the author.
On page 218 of the book, he uses the kind of language about President Trump that he blames President Trump for using about others. It is an unvarnished personal attack even about the President’s personal attributes. The national media, at least, has noticed this. The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial yesterday entitled A Higher Sanctimony. Meanwhile, the New York Times, no friend of the President, ran a headline story, “Comey’s star turn may spoil his cultivated image of high-mindedness.”
Back before James Comey, then the director of the FBI held that May 2016 press conference in which he spoke of the investigation into the Hillary Clinton emails, someone I knew well who had been an officemate of James Comey in the Justice Department during the Reagan administration told me that he had absolute confidence that James Comey would be undeterred by external considerations and would act perfectly in line with his own conscience. The problem is that this individual who had been a colleague in the Justice Department, James Comey holds to his own idea of personal conscience. That becomes very clear in the book and in his interviews.
In an interview with ABC, speaking of the time when he was FBI director, Comey said, “If I ever start considering whose political fortunes will be affected by a decision, we’re done.” Now, keep that high-mindedness apart from politics, we’re told in focus when we turn to page 204 of his book where he says, “I spend a great deal of time looking back at 2016 and even though hindsight doesn’t always offer a perfect view, it offers a unique and valuable perspective. Like many others, I was surprised when Donald Trump was elected President. I had assumed from the media polling that Hillary Clinton was going to win. I have asked myself many times since if I was influenced by that assumption.”
“I don't know,” said Comey. “Certainly not consciously, but I would be a fool to say it couldn’t have had an impact on me. It is entirely possible that because I was making decisions in an environment where Hillary Clinton was sure to be the next president, my concern about making her an illegitimate president by concealing the restart in investigation bore greater weight than it would have if the election appeared closer or if Donald Trump were ahead in the polls, but I don't know.”
Now, not one of us can get into the heart and mind of another. We can’t actually know the moral inventory that’s going on in the conscious deliberations of the mind, but here’s the problem we’ve got with this book and that interview. They appear to be coming from two different men. One of them says that the entire game is over if he ever allowed politics to have a role in making his decisions, whereas much of the book that he’s just released talks about how politics influenced his decisions, speaking openly of the political calculacy employed at one of the most strategic moments in the history of American presidential politics.
What’s the bottom line in all of this for the Christian worldview? It is the basic Christian understanding that indeed, the institutions of our government, including the institutions of our system of justice, they are invaluable and they are urgently important, and a sense of higher loyalty to them is indeed called for, but not the highest loyalty. If that’s the highest loyalty, then we will fall either into the quandaries of personal conscience in the name of that loyalty or we will fall into some kind of political idolatry. That’s where the Christian worldview alone rescues us. Our loyalty to those institutions is real and it is a high authority, but that must be on the foundation of an even higher authority, a notion of truth and justice and righteousness that is even greater than the institutions of American public life.
As we must bring this issue of The Briefing to a close, we recognize there’s been a huge historical shift in the United States from that East Coast establishment to today’s political disequilibrium. Right before our eyes, we are deciding the kind of government we want and the kind of people we intend to be. The end of this unfolding story is nowhere close in sight.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.