The mainstream faith of Bush 41: At what point did 'personal' become 'political'?

If you want a summary of what mainstream news professionals think is important — especially the elite scribes who cover politics — all you need to do is read the obituaries published after the death of a president.

What really matters? What subjects are secondary? It’s all there.

With that in mind, I urge readers to work their way through the stunningly faith-free New York Times obituary covering the life and times of former President George H.W. Bush: “George Bush, 41st President, Dies at 94.”

I would offer some commentary on the religious content in this massive feature — but there isn’t any. It would appear that the “personal” is not the “political.”

The bottom line: If you want to know what is real, what is “news,” then you need to study the political. You can see that by comparing the content of the Times obit with the newspaper’s fine sidebar that ran with this headline: “ ‘I Love You, Too’: George Bush’s Final Days.” Here is the overture to that:

George Bush had been fading in the last few days. He had not gotten out of bed, he had stopped eating and he was mostly sleeping. For a man who had defied death multiple times over the years, it seemed that the moment might finally be arriving.

His longtime friend and former secretary of state, James A. Baker III, arrived at his Houston home on Friday morning to check on him.

Mr. Bush suddenly grew alert, his eyes wide open.

“Where are we going, Bake?” he asked.

“We’re going to heaven,” Mr. Baker answered.

“That’s where I want to go,” Mr. Bush said.

Barely 13 hours later, Mr. Bush was dead. The former president died in his home in a gated community in Houston, surrounded by several friends, members of his family, doctors and a minister.

The minister at the former president’s bedside — Father Russell J. Levenson Jr. — was the pastor of the rather traditional Episcopal parish in which Bush was a leader. The same parish received quite a bit of attention when Barbara Bush died. The Times piece noted:

… Dr. Levenson, who has been Mr. Bush’s pastor for more than 11 years and visited repeatedly in recent weeks, said the former president was comforted that he would soon rejoin Barbara, his wife of 73 years, who died in April, and Robin, their daughter, who died in 1953 of leukemia at the age of 3.

“There was no question he knew where he was going and who he was going to be with,” Dr. Levenson said. “He was looking forward to being with Barbara and Robin again.”

At the end — literally — there was this scene:

Dr. Levenson, who arrived at 9:15 p.m., led those in the room in prayer. “We all knelt around him and placed our hands on him and prayed for him and it was a very graceful, gentle death,” he said. “It was very evident that that man was so deeply loved.”

Here is my question: When you look at the political career of Bush 41, isn’t it accurate to say that religious issues and trends in America played a major role?

This was a man of deep — but rather private — faith struggling to articulate the “vision thing” to grassroots voters in a political age in which social issues and religion were crucial, to say the least. The evidence is that he was a rather traditional Christian believer, but someone whose person style and modesty made it hard for him to, well, PREACH.

I kept expecting some of that tension to show up in the elite news obits covering his life.

At the Washington Post, the main obit talked about the crucial role that political issues linked to religion — abortion, of course, topped the list — played in Bush’s long march to the White House. As was common at the time, this obit suggested that 41’s evolution on moral and social issues was rather pragmatic.

Toward the very end of the main obit, there was this passage. I, for one, would have been interested in hearing more from journalist-speechwriter Peggy Noonan, an articulate Catholic who was close to Ronald Reagan and Bush.

In 1988, Mr. Bush gave a list of the qualities he most cherished to Peggy Noonan, who wrote his speech accepting that year’s Republican presidential nomination. They were: “family, kids, grandkids, love, decency, honor, pride, tolerance, hope, kindness, loyalty, freedom, caring, heart, faith, service to country, fair (fair play), strength, healing, excellence.”

As you would expect, the Post team has produced a wave of Bush 41 sidebars, including one focusing on the role religion played in his political career, as well as his private life.

Trust me. The content is way better than the headline: “George H.W. Bush helped lead GOP toward evangelicalism.” In particular, I appreciated the use of passages — rather than tiny soundbites — from crucial Bush remarks focusing on religious issues and convictions.

This one, in particular, was especially effective. This is long, but crucial, opening with material from writer Doug Wead, co-author if the book, “George Bush, Man of Integrity.”

Bush began to talk about his religious beliefs in public as a presidential candidate. He had to touch on the increasing evangelical movement, Wead says, and the discussion when he was vice president was how he could build a relationship with and show respect to the evangelical movement.

“I soon discovered that, in my opinion, he was on a spiritual journey,” Wead says. “At first it looked like it was all politics … the more I began to realize, he’s defining what he himself believes, and sharpening that, and based on what other people believe and these other traditions and these other philosophies and these other theologies.”

As a candidate for president in 1988, Bush ran against Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, who supported abortion rights.

During the second presidential debate, on Oct. 13, 1988, Bush said: “I think human life is very, very precious. And, look, this hasn’t been an easy decision for me to meet. I know others disagree with it. But when I was in that little church across the river from Washington and saw our grandchild christened in our faith, I was very pleased indeed that the mother had not aborted that child, and put the child up for adoption [son Marvin Bush and his wife, Margaret, adopted two children]. And so I just feel this is where I’m coming from. And it is personal. And I don’t assail [Michael Dukakis] on that issue, or others on that issue. But that’s the way I, George Bush, feel about it.”

Here is the basic question, for me: Is it possible to deal with the life and career of George H.W. Bush without digging deep into his family and the roots of his rock-hard convictions about loyalty and service?

I would say, “No.” That leads to a second question: Is the factual evidence that this side of 41’s life was linked to his traditional, but very mainline, faith?

I am glad that the Post and the Times offered these strong sidebars. I am, however, arguing that these topics transcend “sidebar” status, in this case. Issues of religious style and content were at the heart of the political career of Bush 41.

FIRST IMAGE: From the presidential library of President George H.W. Bush.

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