Monday, Dec. 3, 2018
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Monday, December 3, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
A portrait of the American past: When a boy could be raised to be president
The message went out late on Friday night. The letters were simply CAVU. That is Navy abbreviation for Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited. It was the code that had been adopted by the inner circle of the 41st President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush. It was the code indicating that the former President had died, which he did about 10:30 PM in Houston, Texas, on Friday night. The language of the Navy, that CAVU, Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited, was pointing back to the heroic service of George H.W. Bush as a Naval aviator during World War II. Those who knew him best and loved him best understood the centrality of that Navy experience to who he was and how he served his country. That language, Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited, was pilot speak for an unlimited ability to fly, which is exactly what they were attributing to the fact that George H.W. Bush had died peacefully after a long struggle with a form of Parkinson's disease.
There have only been 44 men who have served as President of the United States. Every single one of them thus plays a very important role in the nation's history, and, in modern times, every single one of them has played a major role on the world scene, but when you're looking at the death of the 41st President of the United States, George H.W. Bush, you are looking at the end, not only of a human life, you are a looking at a transition of historical epic in the United States. To put the matter simply as possible, it is not only true that George H.W. Bush was the last veteran of World War II to serve in the Oval Office, it is also true that in his passing, we have seen the passage of an entire model of American politics, an entire historical awareness of what it meant to devote one's life to public service, and behind that is a very interesting history.
George Bush was born on June the 12th, 1924. That places his birth right between two massively important World Wars and just a few years before the Great Depression in the United States.
As you look back to 1924, that was a far more innocent age in American life. It was before, or you might say just as, the United States was becoming one of the dominant players on the world scene. It was known at the end of World War I that America was the coming world power, but that was not made abundantly clear until World War II, and that generation, often now referred to as the greatest generation, the generation that forged American freedom on the world scene in the second World War, but George Bush was also born into one of the patrician families of American History. Patrician refers to patriarchs, and there is no doubt that there is a patriarchal heritage in American history that goes all the way back to the founding era.
With the Bush family, there has been a long tradition of public service, and there has also been a long tradition of family wealth. Prescott Bush, George Bush's father, was not only a successful businessman, he was also a United States Senator. By the time George Bush entered is teenage years, he was a student at the elite Phillips Academy, and, there, he was a standout, playing on both the soccer and the baseball teams, but he was also known back then by his nickname of Poppy Bush. He was known as one of the most popular boys on the campus. In a very elite culture, he had already emerged in leadership. That would become abundantly clear years later, but by the end of the time that George Bush was at Phillips Academy, everything changed on December the 7th of 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor by surprise.
The call of duty and the Greatest Generation: The teenage Naval aviator who became president
George Bush was 17, not quite yet ready to graduate from Phillips Academy, when the Japanese attacked, but he made a determination right away that he wanted to serve his country, specifically as a Naval aviator. As soon as he turned 18 and graduated from Phillips Academy, one of those very prestigious boy schools in the Northeast that produced generations of American leadership, he enlisted in the United States Navy, and, by the time he was still in his teens, he had become the youngest Naval aviator to earn his wings and begin service in World War II.
There's another very interesting twist to this tale and has to do with the fact that, in 1944, Bush, who was piloting an Avenger Bomber, was assigned the task, with several others, of attacking a major radio installation on the Japanese-held island in the Pacific, known as Chichijima. There had been a broadcasting transmitting relay set up between Iwo Jima, the far more famous island, and Chichijima.
In 1944, George Bush was the pilot of one of the Naval planes that attacked, successfully attacked, that Japanese broadcasting station at Chichijima. Unfortunately, several of the planes were shot, and Bush's plane was amongst several that crashed, shot down by the Japanese. George Bush was one of only nine aviators to have survived the crashes of those planes, but he was the only one to avoid capture by the Japanese. It only became known considerably later, in far more recent times, that the other eight had not only died in Japanese captivity, but that they had been tortured, they had been executed, and some of them had been cannibalized by Japanese officers on the island.
In his book, Flyboys, the author, James Bradley, tells the story of the young aviator, George H.W. Bush, as he was bobbing up and down in the Pacific in a life raft, clinging to life, suffering from dehydration, beginning even to suffer from delirium, but knowing that he had to paddle away from the island of Chichijima if he was to avoid capture and execution by the Japanese.
In one of the most remarkable moments of the second World War, in the Pacific Theater, not only was there a United States submarine sent into rescue George Bush and any others that could be found, but there was actually a video team, a movie team documenting the rescue. It was just one rescue of so many during World War II. It was just one submarine. It was just one Naval aviator, but we can still, even now, look at that film and see that very young, very thin man plucked out of the Pacific. We are told that, in his exhaustion and delirium, all George Bush could say, as he was brought onto the deck of the USS Fincastle was, "Glad to be onboard," the Naval language that everyone onboard that submarine would have understood.
As with so many of these stories, there is a huge worldview issue behind what happened and what didn't happen in that particular crash and rescue. One of the most interesting dimensions of the story was told not from the American side, but from the Japanese side. One of the Japanese officials on the island, noting the fact that the Americans had sent a submarine to pluck a single Navy aviator from the ocean, said that he understood right then that the Americans operated on a very different understanding of the value of human life than did the Japanese of which he was so much a part. He said, "There is no way that the Japanese Navy would have sent in any vessel in the danger, into harm's way, simply for a single aviator. They would have written them off," but not so the Americans, and that, in itself, it turned out, was a profound testimony to the American understanding of the value of human life.
After the American victory in World War II, George Bush returned to the country. He married a young woman by the name of Barbara Pierce, and he also became a student at Yale University. He would graduate from Yale. He would also, there, be a part of the ultra elite society, known as Skull and Bones. He would play baseball for Yale, and he would, eventually, after graduation, go into business, eventually, later, moving to Texas in order to make his own personal fortune in the oil business, and behind that is another interesting aspect of American history now past.
Prescott Bush's father, a United States Senator, was very clear about that patrician American tradition that a man should not enter politics until he could fund his family for the remainder of his fatherly responsibilities. That is to say, make a fortune first and enter politics only second. Even though he came from considerable wealth, George Bush was expected to make his own fortune. Of course, he had a certain advantage, coming from a very prosperous family. He had connections going to Phillips Academy, graduating from Yale. He had lots of connections, but instead of locating his business there in the northeast, he decided, and here's another interesting turn in American history, he decided to go to the boom state of Texas, far, far from the patrician Northeastern culture in which he had been raised, and in the Texas wildcatting age of the 1960s, in particular, he made his fortune with what became known as Zapata Petroleum. It would be for that reason that George and Barbara Bush, both products of aristocratic families in the Northeast, would actually raise their children not in the American Northeast, not in New England, but in Texas, and that's why the 43rd President of the United States, George W. Bush, is so associated with Texas, as he was raised for most of his years in Midland, Texas, right there in the middle of the petroleum explosion, and he would later, of course, serve two terms as the Governor of Texas.
The bookend in George H.W. Bush's life is the fact that, for the last decades of his life, he was solidly associated with Texas. He and Barbara retired to Houston, Texas, when he was defeated for reelection to the White House in 1992. He died on Friday night in Houston, Texas, and so far as George Bush was concerned, and Texas, he died at home.
That aristocratic, that is to say patrician culture of the American Northeast, the Yankee tradition in American politics and American culture, points back to the fact that in the early decades of the 20th century, continuing what had developed in the United States in the 19th century, you had an aristocracy that had developed and very clearly had committed itself to its own understanding of public leadership and public service.
George Bush was raised by parents who were committed to that tradition. His father, again, was a United States Senator, as well as a prosperous businessman. His mother was the matriarch of that New England family, and she instilled in her children, and most remarkably in George H.W. Bush, an understanding of the necessity of personal modesty. That kind of public leadership was to be very modest, not showing. Even when George Bush was President of the United States, his mother was still concerned that he must demonstrate modesty, even in the nation's highest office.
President George H.W. Bush and the transformation of American politics in the 20th century
In another very important turn in American history, by the time George Bush had established himself and had established his fortune in Texas, Texas was a part of the great political transformation of the United States.
The 1960s are exactly when the tectonic plates of politics in Texas began to change. They began to change from Texas being a rather predictable southern state with solidly established Democratic figures in leadership to a growing Republican party and an increasing conservatism in American culture. Of course, this eventuated in 1966 when George H.W. Bush was elected to the first of two terms in Congress. He represented a prosperous Houston district, and he never lost the sense of political identity with Houston as a city and with that particular district as his political identity, his base. That meant a significant shift from the Northeast to Texas as his identity and the Bush dynasty, as it is now known, became more established in Texas, more rooted in Texas, solidly identified with the Texas tradition in Republican politics than had been the case with his father, who was a United States Senator, but was of a more liberal Republican bent.
Between the emergence of Senator Prescott Bush on the national scene and the emergence of George H.W. Bush on the national scene, there had been some huge developments. There had been the growing partisan identification of the Republicans as the more conservative party and the Democrats as the more liberal party. You had Texas shifting from Democratic to Republican. You also had, between those generations, massive cultural events, all the social transformations of the 1960s. Eventually, you would have the legalization of abortion in 1973 with the Roe v. Wade decision.
Here's what you need to keep in mind. Senator Prescott Bush was actually, at one point, the national leader of fundraising efforts for the organization known as Planned Parenthood. This is when the Republican leadership in the United States Congress, for that matter, the national Republican leadership, was rather committed to an understanding of managing the sexual revolution, and they actually saw abortion, in many ways, as something the Republican party should and it did support. All that began to change in the 1960s, especially 1968, with the election of Richard Nixon as President of the United States, but, more significantly, it shifted massively between the presidency of Gerald Ford, the unelected President of the United States, and Ronald Reagan, who was elected in 1980, and, of course, George H.W. Bush was his Vice President, but between 1966, when George Bush was elected to Congress, and 1980, when he was elected Vice President with Ronald Reagan, there had been an udder transformation of the United States and an udder transformation of Texas, there had been a near complete transformation of the Republican party.
George H.W. Bush himself was fairly liberal on cultural and moral issues by the standards of the day in the 1960s, but, as Ronald Reagan's Vice President and later as a presidential candidate himself and as President of the United States, he would take on a very clear pro-life perspective.
It was President Richard Nixon who convinced George Bush, then Congressman George Bush, in the year 1970, to run for the United States Senate. He lost that race, but he was not embarrassed in that race. It was one of the signs of growing Republican influence in Texas and, of course, eventually, within about a decade, almost all of the statewide offices in Texas would turn Republican, but Republican Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford would keep George H.W. Bush very much in mind. He would be appointed first the United States Ambassador to the United Nations. Later, he would serve in the aftermath of the Watergate crisis as the Chairman of the Republican National Committee. Later, he would be appointed the United States envoy to China, where he made some very important international relationships, and, then, after that, he would become director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
By the time he reached the late 1970s, George H.W. Bush already has what can only be described as one of the most elite political resumes in the United States, so much so, that it it is now known that President Gerald Ford, taking office after the resignation of President Richard Nixon, considered appointing George H.W. Bush as his Vice President in accordance with the fairly recently adopted 25th amendment to the US Constitution. Instead, Gerald Ford went with a man who became famous as the Governor of New York, Republican Nelson Rockefeller. That was a disappointment to George H.W. Bush, but it actually set the stage for him becoming Vice President of the United States under Ronald Reagan and eventually the 41st President of the United States. It was indeed George H.W. Bush, the Resume Republican, as he was known, who was considered to be the front runner for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination. He won the Iowa caucuses, but then came a surging Ronald Reagan, and, eventually, Ronald Reagan won, decisively, the 1980 presidential nomination, successfully redefining the Republican party, not only for the 1980s, but far beyond.
In one of the oddest almost moments in American history, during the 1980 Republican Presidential Convention, Ronald Reagan was in serious negotiations with former President Gerald Ford about becoming Reagan's Vice President, but that did not happen, and, instead, Ronald Reagan turned to George Bush. That created a certain amount of awkwardness, initially, in the 1980 Republican ticket because it was George H.W. Bush who had criticized Ronald Reagan's economic plan infamously as voodoo economics, but it turned out that Ronald Reagan really needed George H.W. Bush on the Republican ticket in 1980. It was one of those hinge moments in American politics. The new, represented by Ronald Reagan's new conservatism for the Republican party, needed to be balanced in the eyes of many Republican voters with that Resume Republican, George H.W. Bush.
The question was, could George H.W. Bush be loyal to President Ronald Reagan? It turned out that he was one of the most loyal Vice Presidents in American history, but what also turned out, that by the time George H.W. Bush would run for the Republican nomination in 1988, win it, and then win election as President, he had adopted many of the positions that had been articulated by Ronald Reagan in 1980 and in 1984.
Looking back, there were several incredibly illuminating moments during George H.W. Bush's vice presidency. Perhaps the most important of all came on March the 30th, 1981, when President Ronald Reagan was shot in an attempted assassination in Washington, D.C., just outside a hotel where the President had just spoken. The Vice President was actually flying to the Southwest in order to speak. He modified his schedule and returned to Washington, D.C. By the time the Vice-President was returning to Washington, D.C., it was becoming known that President Ronald Reagan was actually facing a mortal danger. That meant that many Americans were already looking to George H.W. Bush, wondering if he was about to become President of the United States.
Once the Vice-President had returned to Washington late that night on the plane designated as Air Force Two, officials wanted him to go by helicopter because of the unusual security of that context with President Reagan then hanging between life and death after the shooting. They wanted the Vice President to arrive by helicopter on the lawn of the White House in order to secure Americans in their understanding of the fact that the government was in sound hands. George H.W. Bush, the 43rd Vice-President of the United States, refused to allow that to happen. Perhaps it was the influence of that mother, who had impressed upon him the imperative of modesty. George H.W. Bush told the officials who wanted him to go by helicopter to the White House that the only person qualified to land in a helicopter on the lawn of the White House was the President of the United States, and he said, quite rightly and historically, "There is one President of the United States, and he is Ronald Reagan, and he is going to pull through this. I will go by car," and, thus, the Vice President arrived at the White House, and, later, in the Situation Room, arriving by car in a motorcade, the way he would have any other day.
In historical perspective, George W. Bush is going to be more remembered for his international skills as President than for his domestic policies. That becomes a problem later on, but we need to understand that President George H.W. Bush, given his experience in World War II, given his aristocratic patrician background, given his education and his experience, he was the President best situated to assist the United States on the world scene during those crucial years between 1989 and January of 1993. Just consider what was happening. It is probably right, I would argue, to credit President Ronald Reagan with the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. If an American President could make that difference, Ronald Reagan did make that difference, but the management of the breakup of the Soviet Union, one of the moments of greatest danger and tension in all of world history was managed by Ronald Reagan's successor, the 41st President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush. It was President Bush's instinct for modesty that kept the United States from grandstanding about the breakup of the Soviet Union and led to the peaceful breakup of the world's communist superpower on terms that no one would have imagined possible just a few years previous.
In another one of those most interesting twists of history that can only now be better known, at the end of the Soviet Union, when there was an attempt to topple the then General Secretary of the Communist party, Mikhail Gorbachev, it was President Bush and it was the United States, under President Bush's direction, the intelligence agencies, that effectively warned the Soviet Leader of the coup against him and helped to make certain that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a soft collapse and not a thermonuclear disaster.
It was under President George H.W. Bush that the United States proceeded against the Noriega regime in Panama, resolving that political crisis, and, of course, the most famous international incident related to President George H.W. Bush was what is now known as the first Gulf War. It was President Bush who, after Saddam Hussein had invaded the neighboring nation of Kuwait, which, by the way, was not only a violation of Kuwait's national sovereignty, it was a direct threat to the peace and order of the globe and especially of the world oil system, it was President George H.W. Bush who skillfully put together a coalition of 28 nations and skillfully got the United Nations to adopt an authorization for military action. It was the first Gulf War that was a massive military success, liberating Kuwait in record time, but it was also a controversial decision made by President Bush to stop with the liberation of Kuwait. As he made very clear, the United Nations and Americas allies in that effort had agreed to liberate Kuwait. They had not agreed to topple Saddam Hussein.
Bush's popularity as President skyrocketed to almost 90%. That's the stratosphere in presidential popularity, and his popularity was so high that most major Democratic figures who might have run for President in 1992 decided not to run because they did not want to be part of the George Bush reelection steamroller, but, as it turned out, that wasn't how history turned.
Instead, it was a young Arkansas Governor, a Democratic Governor by the name of Bill Clinton, who saw the opportunity of a lagging United States economy to press his case against President George H.W. Bush, and, in the 1992 presidential election, he was successful in doing so, but in that transition, we now know, looking in retrospect, it was as if an entire chapter of American history was closed and a new chapter began.
Just looking at the personalities, looking at the character, looking at the reputation of Bill Clinton versus George H.W. Bush, you are looking at not only at two very different generations, you are looking at two radically different understandings of political character, of personal moral character, of presidential leadership, and of American identity. It is hard to imagine two figures more different on the world scene, and especially in American politics, than George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and, yet, in one presidential election in 1992, that hinge of history was turned once again.
After his defeat in the 1992 election, President George H.W. Bush would retire to Texas where he and his wife, Barbara, would become iconic figures, and, of course, some of the most beloved figures on the American scene. His wife, Barbara, the former First Lady, died just several months ago. It was in April that her funeral was held in Houston, Texas. Now, this Wednesday, the state funeral for the 41st President of the United States will be held Wednesday at 11:30 Eastern Time in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
Later this week and in the aftermath of that service on Wednesday, we will talk about what it means for the United States to hold a state funeral. There are not many state funerals in American history. There's a reason why, and that makes every one of them historically important. We're going to talk about what is and is not said at that funeral service, and we're going to understand what is and is not happening, even in that building known as the National Cathedral.
It isn't often on The Briefing that we talk about one issue for the entire program, but, then again, there aren't many days when we're talking about the death of a former President of the United States. We'll be looking to other worldview issues as the week unfolds, but I simply want to say that I'm personally indebted to the fact that I had the opportunity to meet President George H.W. Bush when he was President, and to see him as a man in full. He was, I simply have to admit, one of the most impressive men I ever had the opportunity to meet. I also had the opportunity to see him in other meetings and in other occasions where he was speaking in person, and he knew how to carry himself as President of the United States. He understood public service as something one not only did, but something a President was, a major leader had to be, not just to do.
At an odd moment, I saw the other side of President George H.W. Bush, as well. I was visiting in Maine, as I was on a speaking trip, and I had the opportunity to go to coastal Maine, and I was up on the bluffs, overlooking a beautiful bay, when I was having lunch on a beautiful day, looking out at the water. The only problem was my very peaceful lunch was interrupted by a very loud motor sound coming from the water. It was only then that I noticed that what was known as a cigarette boat, a very fast speedboat, was going back and forth constantly in the water at top speed. The boat would race in one direction, slow down, turn around, and race in the other direction, a process that went on over and over and over again. It was then I noticed something else very interesting. That speedboat was being protected by major US Coast Guard vessels. Only then did I realize that I was looking down at Kennebunkport, Maine, and at the former President of the United States enjoying, as he so famously enjoyed, running his speedboat at open throttle on the water. I think, in many ways, that was a metaphor for his life, a life lived at open throttle from beginning to end.
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.