In whatever remains of our weirdly didactic civic culture, the death of a statesman is supposed to impart a lesson. John F. Kennedy’s assassination was held to be a solemn set piece about the loss of American innocence—something that occurred in the actually existing world roughly an hour or so after the first settlers in Jamestown set about scouring the New World for gold, at the expense of the basic rigors of sustenance. John McCain’s passing was naturally treated as a sermonette on the waning martial character of our once-great republic, which was somehow failing to heed the stirring example of a true patriot’s fealty to imperial war-making and supply-side dogma.
So it was anything but surprising that the loss of George H. W. Bush sparked a vigorous round of pundit nostalgia for an America of noble elite public service and self-sacrifice. “President, patriot, gentleman,” read the headline about Bush’s funeral in my hometown Washington Post. This selfless Brahmin “made our lives, and the lives of nations, freer, better, warmer, nobler,” marveled Jon Meacham, the spirit of potted consensus history made flesh, from his eulogist’s pulpit.
Meacham’s effusive tone poem would certainly have been discordant to thousands of Iraqis on the Highway of Death—and to thousands of stateside AIDS sufferers to whom Bush expressed a wan patrician indifference while in office. But the actual record of leadership and history counts for no more in Bush’s case than in Kennedy’s. No, what matters is the image of the civitas we project onto the dead leader—and in Bush’s case, the obvious thing to mourn was the passing of our stately WASP establishment into the boorish Guignol of the Trump era.