LUKE PHILLIPS, THE MILLENNIAL REPUBLICAN
Something I’ll never forget, I’d wager to the day I die, will be the evening I watched 2017’s Super Bowl 51 from a hospital in Pasadena. I may or may not forget seeing Tom Brady win his record-breaking fifth Super Bowl with the New England Patriots. But I’ll never forget what happened a few short hours before.
As the opening ceremonies ended, former President of the United States George H. W. Bush was wheeled out onto the field with former First Lady Barbara Bush. By this time confined to a wheelchair and barely able to speak, the elder President Bush still had a grin the size of a bus on his face, and looked like a kid in a candy store having the time of his life. Despite his clearly aging physique and inglorious wheelchair entry, President Bush presented an air of dignity and moment, almost an air of statesmanship, as he rolled towards the center of the field- the viewer could almost sense that here, they watched a piece of history come forth, a piece they’d not get to see again. The smooth soundtrack accompanying Bush’s entry only deepened this impression.
Someone handed the President the coin for the fabled toss, and Bush flipped it as best his ailing hand could flip. The hand that had rested steady to guide the American ship of state as the Berlin Wall came down, as the Soviet Empire broke apart, as the guns of Tiananmen Square blazed, as the New World Order was forged atop the smoldering wreckage of Saddam Hussein’s armored divisions, the hand that had shaken so many other world-shaking hands over two and a half decades of public service and two and a half more decades of post-presidential public life, now determined by the toss of a coin whether the Falcons or the Patriots would get the first play. The man who had led the world from one era to the next looked as pleased and cheerful as he ever had.
Perhaps more compelling than that image- of the former most powerful man in the world, a world-historical figure, consigned to the frailty of age, yet defying human destiny with ethereal joy – was the atmosphere surrounding him. Here was a former U.S. President, who like every other U.S. President once had domestic friends and domestic foes, showing himself to a broad section of the public, and receiving only praise. There were no audible jeers or boos or insults, no large sections of the crowd taking the opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with such a well-known public figure. Bear in mind that American Presidents and presidential candidates probably suck up more slanderous abuse than just about any other class of human beings the world has ever seen- but it seems that all 70,000 fans present in the stadium that night momentarily gave up whatever reservations they might have had, and honored a great man.
Can anyone see any of the subsequent Presidents- Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and especially Donald Trump- receiving such a universally warm welcome? In every case, it’s harder and harder to envision. Clinton, Bush Jr., and Obama are all currently more polarized figures than the elder Bush; whatever becomes of their legacy in the coming decades, none of them holds the gravitas of Bush 41 does at the present moment.
Now, there are some caveats to this- of course President Bush Sr. would be more popular and less slandered in 2017, a quarter-century and three two-term presidencies after he left the Oval Office, than he would have been had he flipped the coin in 1993. Time heals most wounds, and the Super Bowl-attending public clearly was so kind to President Bush partly because most of the controversies attending his presidency- the response to the Rodney King Riots, to Tiananmen Square, “No New Taxes,” the Panama operation- had faded into the mists of obscurity. And certainly, had Bush Sr. been more active in politics lately, as Bill Clinton has obviously been, his star would have been a bit more tarnished than his relative silence on public issues has made it.
But even so, Bush Sr. is a unique case- had former President Jimmy Carter flipped the coin, it’s harder to envision the crowd being as receptive and adoring. There’s just something about President George H. W. Bush, which may defy easy categorization, that sets him apart. The cynics will call it PR; romantics might call it character.
Way of the Public Servant
George H. W. Bush, I would argue, seems to represent something that Americans pine for these days without knowing that they pine for it: the old-fashioned cult of experienced, country-first public service, of bipartisan gentility towards political foes, of a consensus-building moderation and prudence mixed with a true, lived dignity by the bearer of the office of the Presidency. Figures like this- in my opinion, Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, and George H. W. Bush exhibited it best- used to be more common in public life, alongside the mischievous Nixons and Johnsons and the charismatic Reagans and Kennedys. But in the Post-Cold War epoch, they’ve been increasingly rare. Whatever superficial similarities there might be in policy or political strategy, no one would equate the character and statecraft of Clinton, Bush Jr., and Obama with that of George H. W. Bush (try as some might.)
I think there’s a reason for that. As Ford speechwriter and Bush Sr. consultant Craig Smith told me in an interview once, Republican and Democratic Presidents with decades of experience in public life, particularly in the Executive Branch and military-intelligence communities, always tended to be more reserved, realistic, and holistically-oriented than their counterparts from the governorships or the Senate. They tended to be less ideological than these colleagues of theirs, and less visionary, but more practical managers of government and certainly far less polarizing figures in the public eye. Others like them who never attained the Presidency- George Marshall, George Shultz, and Brent Scowcroft, all public servants hailing from the famed “military-industrial complex” of the professional U.S. foreign policy community, come to mind- exhibited these traits even more fully.
In an age where politicians with the experience and charisma of a Kennedy or a Reagan tend to ascend to the Presidency more frequently than more experienced public servants, it’s not hard to see why the public- which elects the Clintons and Bushes and Obamas and Trumps to high office in the first place- often seems dissatisfied with its choices. It’s not that modern presidents are incompetent or pernicious or undeserving of the Presidency- it is simply that one of the archetypes of “a good President,” the humble career politician-bureaucrat with military or civil service experience and a bipartisan or nonpartisan record, is far less common these days than it used to be.
And that is unfortunate, because in these days of unprecedented division and divisiveness, a leader with the temperament, aura, and judgment of George H. W. Bush might be just what we need.
George H. W. Bush, Last of the GI Generation
Others have other explanations of the behaviors of different generations of political leaders. My own sometime employers Morley Winograd and Mike Hais are famous for their application of Strauss-Howe Generational Theory to the Realignment Theory of American critical elections and partisan demography; they argue that the cultural and social predilections of any generation, combined with that generation’s reaction to formative experiences around it, interact to shape that generation’s attitudes and behaviors when it attains political maturity.
And there is a cyclical pattern of generations in the Anglo-American world, as well. Winograd and Hais isolate two main types of political generations of importance to American institutional and ideological development- the “Civic” Generations, and the “Idealist” Generations. To oversimplify greatly, Idealist Generations- like the Baby Boomers who currently dominate our political and economic institutions- are more concerned with morality and righteousness than with the interests of the broader group, whereas Civic Generations pragmatically pursue the opposite. The last Civic Generation- the “GI Generation” that came of age during the Depression and the fires of the Second World War- subsequently assumed leadership over the country throughout the Cold War, and produced such great Civic-oriented leaders as John Kennedy, Gerald Ford, and George H. W. Bush (all World War Two veterans.)
But the Civic Generations inevitably are replaced by Idealist Generations. The Bush biographer Jon Meacham opens his magisterial biography[i] of the 41st President by highlighting Bush Sr.’s journal entry the night he lost reelection to the upstart Bill Clinton:
“How do you be the commander in chief when you duplicitously avoid service to your country?…Maybe it is time for a new generation… I’ve always assumed there was duty, honor, country. I’ve always assumed that was just part of what Americans were made of- quite clearly it’s not….
…The values are different now…. I feel I have the comfort of knowing that I have upheld these values and I live and stand by them. I have the discomfort of knowing that they might be a little out of date…”
This passage explains it all, it would seem, according to Winograd and Hais’s theories of generational change. George H. W. Bush was the product of his upbringing and his times, an old-line WASP with the cult of public service engrained in his bones. He was typical of his generation; his successors, being of the later generations, had a different, more supposedly self-serving constellation of values.
It’s an interesting idea, and I don’t dispute any of the empirical data on attitudes and opinions Winograd and Hais cite in their voluminous works,[ii]though I would tend to think personal experience and professional upbringing distinguished Bush from most of his generation. The implications, though, for what the generational cycle means for the Millennial Generation- the next “Civic” Generation- are fascinating.
A Neo-GI Generation?
At a purely empirical level, I’d say Winograd and Hais pretty accurately paint the general attitudinal trends and demographics of my (young and philosophically diverse!) generation. According to Winograd and Hais, Millennials tend, by large majorities, to be:
-inclined, by rearing, towards positivity, optimism, and accomplishment;
-ethnically diverse, more ethnically diverse than any prior generation in American history, and importantly, very open to and tolerant of that diversity;
-strongly community-oriented, particularly at a local and nonprofit level;
-very egalitarian on the question of sex roles;
-inclined to “think global and act local;”
-very technologically savvy;
-politically in favor of activist government;
-disinclined to question the motives or patriotism of their political opponents;
-committed to public participation in democracy.
For the most part, I think anyone looking at the university undergraduate populations in the Obama and Trump eras would see that most of these trends generally have held true, particularly during the 2008 and 2016 election seasons, and even to some degree amid the cultural controversies and anti-elite outbursts of the early 2010s. And some of these- the favoring of activist government, community orientation, commitment to public participation- do make Millennials look like another Civic Generation just as the GIs were.
At the same time, one can throw a couple of wrenches into this picnic. Most can recall the World Values Survey data implying that Millennial-aged voters around the Western world are less inclined to support liberal and democratic norms, and even democracy itself. One can look at the overwhelming young character of the skinheads at the Charlottesville rallies to see a sect of Millennials rabidly intolerant of those unlike them. On the flipside, there’s always the speech-suppression growing increasingly normal on elite college campuses these days, always spearheaded by Millennial college students. And in terms of political activism, who can forget that the Millennial Generation has been popularly associated- and poll numbers seem to back this up- with the decidedly non-GI, not particularly “Civic” or “pragmatic” presidential candidates Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders?
This is not to contradict the attitudes and behaviors Winograd and Hais have observed and measured- it is merely to suggest that the Millennials, just like the Boomer and GI Generations before them, are internally diverse, and their internal diversity is at least as important as whatever commonality they have among themselves, distinguishing them from their elders. It is also to suggest that, just as the days of GI Generation domination of government were full of every kind of division from racism to McCarthyism to the cultural revolutions of the 1960s to the polarization of the parties in the 1970s, so the forthcoming years of Millennial America will probably be just as divided, or more so, regardless of whatever consensus lies underneath.
This is no reason to despair, though, particularly for those Millennials who aspire to high leadership. They just need to actively take inspiration the 41stPresident and others like him on their own, there being no iron law of history fating their generation to produce similarly great statesmen without effort.
Dear Aspiring Millennial Statesmen and Stateswomen: Be Like Bush 41
The foundational experiences and attitudes of Millennials do, empirically it seems, appear to parallel those of the GI Generation to some degree. I’ll concede to Winograd and Hais that this probably makes it more likely that Millennials who rise to middling, upper, and high levels of societal, economic, and political influence may practice the virtues of a bygone age, updated for the challenges of today. And for those who aspire to do this, there can be no better living model to emulate than George H. W. Bush.
Now, I’m not really holding my breath for Millennials en masse to become patriotic servant-statesmen of the caliber we’re examining here. I sometimes question my peers’ propensity to love America as a country; they certainly love its society, and their communities at the local levels, but if the country includes those things as well as the broader American historical heritage, the institutional American state and government, the sort of “covenant” between our forebears and us and our posterity, it would seem there’s a mixed bag of responses. The generally antiwar attitudes of Millennials sometimes seem to extend to become critiques of the military-industrial complex’s existence itself, and as briefly mentioned earlier, the military-industrial complex is one of the main bastions of the country-first civic virtue temperate statesmen like Eisenhower and Bush Sr. represented. Millennials’ “think global, act local” mentality implies loyalties and preferences distinct from Kennedy’s admonition to “ask what you can do for your country.” Many of the social justice and racial justice attitudes of Millennials seem to be driven by an embarrassed shame in the American past and present, rather than an acceptance of what it is.
Winograd and Hais don’t seem bothered by these trends, noting that the social liberalism and soft globalism of Millennials is the way of the future. (Incidentally, Walter McDougall painted these attitudes dystopian in the conclusion of his recent book on the American Civil Religion[iii].) I’m not necessarily personally bothered by these attitudes, though I have my own disagreements.
But I simply wonder if it’s possible for a generation to be a “Civic” Generation, and give rise to great leaders of the stature of the GI Presidents, Cabinet Secretaries, and Congressional leaders of the mid-to-late 20th century, if that generation has mixed feelings about the polity they’re supposed to be “Civic” towards. Indeed, the most vocal of Millennials seem to me, at times, to be more of an “Idealist” Generation more interested attaining social justice at any cost, and keeping their consciences untainted by the messy compromises and moral stains that come with consensus governance.
I hope that’s unfair, and I hope I’m wrong. I do think, though, that if the Millennial Generation is going to produce leaders who can, as Winograd and Hais so dearly hope, reinvigorate American civic life, reform our institutions, establish a new consensus based on respect and service, and reestablish a country-first Civic Ethos as a guiding pole of public life, it would be important for those leaders to study role models from the last “Civic” Generation. And the last living President of that generation, and the best living exemplar of that temperament and politics, is George H.W. Bush.
How the Millennials in general and aspiring Millennial leaders in particular react to H.W.’s future death, I think, will have a lot to say about whether or not the generation has its values in the right place. If they honor the President, and reflect on his legacy, we’re probably in a good place. If they jeer him as a warmonger or an unsympathetic racist or a neo-colonialist- three things he certainly wasn’t- we probably have a long ways to go.
But I hope there are maybe 50 or 60 young people out there, serving over in Afghanistan or South Korea, or pushing papers in a Capitol Hill legislative office, or debating their older peers in statehouses and city halls, or writing reports for obscure magazines and think-tanks, who hear of President Bush’s death, and weep inside. And I hope they then commit themselves to becoming public servants of his caliber- men and women, citizens of the 21stcentury United States of America, Millennials committed to duty, honor, country, regardless of whether their peers will follow them or not.
For if they do, then when the next Boston Tea Party or Fort Sumter or Stock Market Crash hits, they’ll be in positions of responsibility, ready to serve, ready to preserve, ready to reform. They’ll be the ones who, like President Bush, steward our troubled country from one great epoch to another. And because of their character and service- duty, honor, country- the American Dream will live on.
And maybe one of them will be wheeled out for Super Bowl 121, and inspire the next great Civic Generation.