By Tom Lamia
I write on the day of the memorial service for George H.W. Bush. Today and during the preceding four days, many have spoken privately and publicly of the remarkable character of Bush 41. A connection between his character and the effect of his service in World War II has been noted as a strong influence on his lifelong commitment to public service and on his notable qualities of affability, courage, humility, humor, and patriotism over partisanship.
Is it right to attribute these qualities to service in WWII? I would like to say yes, but more is involved. Several of our WWII presidents (Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Reagan) seem also to have had these qualities. One may question the eligibility of Eisenhower or Carter on humor, or of Johnson or Reagan on military service, but I do not; efforts were made. Only Nixon is seen today as failing the Bush character test and it is not a close call. Elevating a president who resigned in disgrace to membership in this good character club of presidents would be a mistake.
The beneficial effects on character of WWII service are seen in all who lived through those years of world war; including those whose civilian lives were seriously, often tragically, affected by war. I think of the women who were the essential home front support as workers, mothers, teachers, and volunteers to allow civilian society to continue to exist in a recognizable form. I think of the farmers, scientists, industrial workers, planners and engineers, who in a matter of months transformed a depression-leveled, consumer society to massive wartime production, for our country and our allies. I think of those who transformed government and the public sector from peacetime lassitude to bureaucratic triple time, directing national energies and capacities to reach goals set by the need to save our country from defeat and possible extinction. Failure was not only not an option, it was not thinkable.
Quoting Samuel Johnson from the 1700s: “The gallows doth wonderfully concentrate the mind.” An entire generation felt the urgency of taking part. School children collected newspapers, bacon grease, tin cans, tin foil, and anything that could be brought to school, processed and used by the troops or sold to raise money needed for war materiel. I remember feeling the satisfaction that came from participating in the war effort. All those whose volunteer services dealt with remote threats: air raid wardens who roamed neighborhoods to enforce blackouts; ambulance drivers, like my grandmother, who stood ready to transport the killed and injured (yet only drove in parades); and more (ask your grandparents).
Oh, that the presidential qualities brought forth by the crisis of WWII could be universal among our leaders today. They exist, of that I am sure, but I am also sure that they matter less today than when the country was facing wartime’s existential threat. Today, it seems that the skills needed to win elections matter more than character, despite the credible existential threats we face from instantaneous nuclear annihilation and long-term but inexorable environmental destruction. These dire threats are considered secondary to the “hot button issues” that change with every election cycle.
Members of the WWII generation no longer lead our political debates, but we would benefit from having their participation in the 2020 election cycle. Not as candidates for office necessarily, but as advocates for the country and its democracy. I think of Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Jerry Brown and Jimmy Carter, but others qualify: Alan Simpson, Erskine Bowles, Patrick Leahy, George Mitchell, William Cohen, Richard Shelby and Dianne Feinstein.
I am not advocating that any be candidates in 2020, but they should be heard. We all might learn something.