Bush’s passing reminds us of what America once was

His nation celebrated George H.W. Bush this week as a statesman, a veteran, a loving and committed family man who was a totem of respect, humility and mildness. But something else seeped into all the praise as Americans gathered Wednesday to send him on his way.

Bush was also remembered as an emissary from, to use his own idiom, a kinder, gentler America of seemingly clearer challenges — which were, in reality, as complicated as the fragmentary problems we face today.

In an era where Donald Trump volleys insults at will from the White House directly to an audience of tens of millions, could it be that a portion of this week’s warmth about Bush 41 is fueled in part by a hunger for a time when American politics, and American life, seemed to make just a bit more sense?

When Bush took office in early 1989, the country was just eight years out from Walter Cronkite’s avuncular, reassuring “That’s the way it is” — even when it wasn’t. During his single term, “reality TV” still meant Bob Saget rolling a few embarrassing camcorder tapes on “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” And, hard as it may seem to believe, a phone was still used pretty much to call people up and talk to them.

More saliently, George H.W. Bush was the final president to preside over — and help shepherd to an end — the more outwardly coherent narrative of American geopolitics that had prevailed since the end of World War II.

The US had a distinct, discrete adversary — communism, as embodied in the Soviet Union, whose undoing took place on Bush’s watch. That adversary had an army and an arsenal, but its main thrust was not the shadowy, asymmetrical warfare that the al-Qaidas and Islamic States of the world now use.

The reality, of course, was infinitely more intricate. For example, it’s hard to dispute that American policy contributed, however inadvertently, to the rise of that asymmetrical warfare we so fear today.

Yet even if things were more complex than they seemed, the perception of the world under George H.W. Bush was this: You still knew who your friends were, and you still knew who your enemies were. No more.

Within a couple years of Bush leaving office, the great online revolution was off and running, hurtling toward the era of social media, micropublishing and “fake news.” Communities fragmented. Institutions faded. Echo chambers rose. The promise of a golden age of human interaction — again, perhaps a promise more than it ever was a reality — melted into a more tempered notion of the internet as a city with gleaming parks, sure, but with dank and dark alleys as well.

It all had a decidedly anti-Cronkite effect: Suddenly we had no idea what, exactly, was the way it was — and what way it was supposed to be.

We remain in that confused crouch today, able to publish globally from the palms of our hands, competing with each other to have the loudest and most persuasive narrative of them all.

And that leads us to the final comparison: George H.W. Bush and Donald J. Trump, starkly different figures with different leadership styles, both unique products of equally distinctive eras.

Whether it’s something you advocate or something you just as vehemently oppose, this much is certain: The Trump administration, approaching the two-year mark, has been a wind-in-our-faces roller-coaster ride that rarely affords opportunities to pause and reflect.

Trump has brought to the presidency an irascible, seat-of-your-pants sensibility, and his social media proclivities have drawn in even the most reluctant of us.

Off the cuff has become the norm. Equilibrium is rare. Anger and aggressiveness and other behaviors previously considered unpresidential are now standard fare. And calibration of the sort that the Reagan and Bush White Houses specialized in is not only bypassed but, in some ways, scorned as stodgy and out of step with a moment-to-moment news cycle.

So it was all the more thought-provoking Wednesday to see the astonishing optics of a church whose front rows contained five living former presidents and their wives — people who, with their political machines, have been perched at the peak of the American political food chain since the Bicentennial. Carter. Clinton. Bush 43. Obama. Trump.

As the service began, and the five men of unimaginable power watched it unfold, there was virtually no drama, nothing unexpected, nothing overly volatile — as least visibly. Just a comfortable, dignified script and some mannered stories of a statesman whose time has now passed.

In America, we tend to hold onto romantic notions about the elders of the generations behind us. Why? Perhaps we think, rightly or wrongly, that they were made of stronger stuff — something more stable, something that made more sense. The American nation, which used to romanticize tomorrows, now spends far more time fetishizing yesterdays.

Is it any wonder, then, that this long goodbye to George Herbert Walker Bush — World War II veteran, distributor of homespun sayings, repository of Greatest Generation honor — might be an emotional American moment bigger than one man’s impressive legacy?

After a generation of complexity and fragmentation and polarization like the country has never seen, might we also be bidding a final farewell to a more comfortable national yesterday as well?

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Ted Anthony, director of digital innovation for The Associated Press, writes frequently about American culture. Follow him on Twitter at @anthonyted

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Copyright © 2018 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright © 2018 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

A tough 50 years, symbolized by John McCain, Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)

“Hope I die before I get old,” the Who sang at Woodstock as the 1960s hurtled to their end. Indeed, the decade and its echoes made premature legends of so many — Kennedy to King, Hendrix to Joplin to Morrison. They became emblems of an era, and the packaging of their virtues and vices has never really stopped.

But then there were those who didn’t die, who did get old and emerged from that crucible and carried themselves through the arc of a life unabbreviated. They moved across decades and changes and navigated a culture that their younger selves would not have recognized.

That’s the crossroads where both Aretha Franklin and John McCain stood — shaped by the decade that reshaped so much of American life but propelled into the 1970s and all the way to 2018, carrying some of the fundamental storylines of the 1960s as they progressed forward.

Think of the most dominant, most kinetic narratives of the 60s, the fiery combustion engines that drove the decade: From race, gender and music (Franklin) to war and politics (McCain), they are contained in the two figures to whom we bid farewell this week.

They exit the stage together in an American moment not unlike the period when each emerged. Fifty years after the cataclysmic year of 1968, today we are in a similar period of upheaval and polarization — a time when American society’s foundational pillars are being questioned and people of all political persuasions are deeply angry and uncertain about the nation’s path.

At a juncture like this, faced with this pair of memorials of a man and woman so very different and yet so uniquely representative of the American experience, what better time to stop and think about such figures, about what they meant and mean?

Sure, we’re doing that. But are we doing it effectively?

In the past few days, the American packaging machine has pulled these two lives into slick renditions of who they actually were. Video montages, photo slide shows, memories and even the pleasingly compact monikers we throw around — the “Queen of Soul” and the “Maverick” — are sweet and nostalgic, yes. But they tend to reduce whole lifetimes to their clichéd sharpest edges: the most popular hit songs, the most pointed quotes, the most outsized moments.

The United States is often accused of being an ahistorical nation, and these fragmentary, Twitter-feed-like glimpses of entire lives make that assertion easier to prove. Sort of like we’ve come to view the 1960s themselves through the prism of reductive, Halloween-party buzzwords like “flower children,” ″sit-in” and “Summer of Love.”

“If there were ever a moment for us to talk and sit down and reflect about who we are, where we came from and where we’re going, this weekend should give us that moment,” says Ron Pitcock, an assistant dean at Texas Christian University who teaches about American cultural memory.

“We need to not compartmentalize these two people into these convenient narratives,” he says. “We have two giants who waded through these muddy waters for us. If we settle for just making them an icon or giving them celebrity, then we’ve completely failed in this moment of reflection.”

The places where those muddy waters flowed were sometimes even muddier. Since the 1960s, the country has only gotten more complicated and, many believe, even more fraught.

Confetti falls on Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and his wife, Cindy, at the end of their 114th New Hampshire town hall meeting with voters. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia, File)

Trust in government sits near historic lows after beginning to plummet around the time that Franklin’s voice started becoming a household sound and McCain was enduring his years in North Vietnamese custody. Music, delivered on vinyl discs for Franklin’s first recordings, is now more typically served up in bits and bytes. And the stories of race and gender in America remain raw, ragged and aggressively unresolved.

What’s illuminating about McCain and Franklin, in the context of the formative eras and experiences that produced them, is this: Each navigated historical currents — rode them, you might even argue — and each figured out how to remain relevant and impactful on their communities. Lives of high drama, yes, but staying power, too.

“Years matter. The people from the ’60s who end up shaping America were often the ones that lasted. Ted Kennedy shaped America much more than John F. Kennedy,” says John Baick, a historian at Western New England University.

“So many figures from the ’60s are caricatures of themselves,” he says. “Aretha Franklin and John McCain didn’t talk about the good old days. They wanted to bring the past into the present. They were living reminders.”

The very youngest Baby Boomers are in their mid-50s now — despite the exhortation to never trust anyone over 30 — and more than half of today’s Americans have no living memory of the 1960s. When personal experience ebbs, myth fills in the mortar between the bricks.

But those who were shaped by the decade continue to influence it, both alive and dead. Sales of Franklin’s music on the day after her death increased by more than 1,500 percent, Billboard Magazine reported.

“Music changes, and I’m gonna change right along with it,” Franklin once said — or, at least, is widely quoted as saying. The 1960s were a time of great and lurching change. Those who made it through often had to change again and again — continuously, even. She did. He did.

That might be the ultimate echo of that long-ago decade that Aretha Franklin and John McCain leave us with this week. Looking past all else, the main story of the 1960s was change — causing it, managing it, figuring out how to live with it.

We’re still not anywhere near where we need to be with that, as American politics today so clearly demonstrate. In that respect, the lives of these two — and similar figures who survive them — hold clues still to be uncovered. Discuss.

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Ted Anthony, director of digital innovation for The Associated Press, writes frequently about American culture. Follow him on Twitter at @anthonyted.

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Copyright © 2018 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright © 2018 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved