Editor’s Note: Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
In a world where each day’s news sends us deeper into our tribes, the passing of the ever-decent George H.W. Bush, our nation’s 41st President, should cause us to reflect on a call for national political unity Bush made during his inaugural address:
“To my friends, and, yes, I do mean friends – in the loyal opposition and, yes, I mean loyal – I put out my hand… The American people await action. They didn’t send us here to bicker. They ask us to rise above the merely partisan. ‘In crucial things, unity’ – and this, my friends, is crucial,” Bush said, speaking directly to the opposition Democrats who controlled the US Congress at the time of his election.
The last World War II veteran to serve as president, President Bush’s views on being loyal to your fellow Americans were likely forged while fighting alongside his brothers to save the world for freedom. They were all in one American tribe struggling – side by side – to save the world from absolute evil.
His inaugural message seems quaint today, as politicians, operatives, and commentators bludgeon each other and impute the worst possible motives to those on the other side. But failure to rise to Bush’s admonition to be loyal to one another in our national affairs will continue to hollow America’s soul. We are all in this together, after all.
President Bush was a partisan Republican and a man of strong convictions, but he did not assume that those who disagreed with him where bad Americans. He fully understood the push and pull of American political debate, and accepted the outcomes produced by our democratic processes.
That acceptance was on display when he passed the torch to Bill Clinton after the 1992 campaign. The note he left in the Oval Office implored his successor to never let the critics discourage him and said, “I am rooting hard for you.”
In today’s politics, it sometimes feels like we take greater pleasure in the failures and stumbles of our political opponents than we do in our own party’s successes. Political campaigns produce winners and losers, but the enduring example of President Bush’s legacy is that America’s political affairs cannot be a zero-sum game.
“In our hearts we know what matters. We cannot hope only to leave our children a bigger car, a bigger bank account. We must hope to give them a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend; a loving parent; a citizen who leaves his home, his neighborhood, and town better than he found it,” President Bush said in his inaugural address.
George H.W. Bush certainly left the world better than he found it. He believed in an America where we root for and remain loyal to each other. He was of a generation that understood what could be accomplished when individuals and families sacrificed for the collective good.
Rest in peace, Mr. President. Your words and example of public service and civility remain a light for all Republicans and all Americans.