Barbara Bush, The Last Roman Matron: Honoring Mothers, and Avoiding the Unctuous

Barbara Bush was (so far as I can tell) a very good wife, mother, grandmother, and friend. She was not (mostly) a power in politics. In so far as she was political, her instincts were a mixture of good and bad. Her main focus was on literacy and there may be someone out there opposed to literacy, but they certainly are not Christian. We are people of a Book!

There is a good custom that we honor the dead for what they got right. We recall Washington as the Father of our Country, not as the slave owner chasing after run always. We honor Churchill as the lone voice against Hitler, not as the crank imperialist.

We can do the same for Barbara Bush.

When she was wrong, she was wrong and abortion was an issue where she was very mistaken. There was a time, when she had some influence or at least a microphone, when it was fitting to make much of this, but surely now is not that time. Her husband changed his mind on issues like abortion, she did not. Her sons were in the Reagan mold politically, she never was. Yet she did great good and in her chosen line of work (wife, mother, grandmother, literacy training), she deserves the thanks of the nation. She was a good First Lady, never degrading the office.

If we understand her context, even her faults make sense. Her time, bad and all, is gone.

Barbara Bush was one of the last of a very old American school: the New England Republican. Before you condemn the genus, remind yourself that New England was the old Bible Belt. The American Revolution was born there and abolition of slavery was at home. The churches spawned revivals that burned over the New England frontier of Upstate New York, built our first industries, and due to Calvinist zeal for learning, become and remains an educational hub for the cosmos.

Keep that heritage in mind: the New England granite that broke the Confederacy. Abraham Lincoln knew he could not be President without the church folks of the northland and built his campaign around the pious of the first religious right. 

This strong Republican tradition lasted a long time. Watch White Christmas and hear Bing Crosby joke about the odds of finding a Democrat in the snows of Vermont. As piety faded, much of New England’s impulse to good works continued. Any group that wanted to help the poor could look to the aristocrats of New England for help. They were, for a long time after the Civil War, the natural ruling class in America. The South was tainted and broken by slavery and segregation. The Midwest often produced Presidents who turned to New England and New York for cabinet members and justices. The West was rough and ready, a great place to send young Theodore, but not quite there yet.

Aristocracy is a good and a bad. There are old traditions that are kept alive in families, but also an unearned privilege that can rot. Duty drove George HW Bush to volunteer in World War II, yet also caused him to underestimate the greatness of Ronald Reagan. Any aristocracy that does not earn its keep will fade and die as the Republican New England estabishment has done.

New England experimented with fringe religious ideas and fads. Orthodoxy always struggles when it gains wealth and power. A great problem of history, think ancient Israel, is that a man tends to do well by doing good, but the wealth and power that follows can corrupt. So even before the Civil War, New England found her religious underpinnings wobbly. Victory corrupted (almost!) absolutely leaving only states like Ohio and Indiana as representatives of the old Civil War Bible Belt to come into our era.

By the time of Eisenhower, the establishment was sort-of-Christian, but open-minded religiously. As a positive: the old abolitionist zeal and desire to serve the poor had never been lost. Their dying gasp was to promote Civil Rights and win the Cold War.

As a negative: noblesse oblige can easily turn into a sense of superiority and condescension.  A group like Planned Parenthood could pick up on growing Protestant support for birth control as a way to help the poor. Barbara Bush was raised in this Waspy world and outlived it. Her life was centered, for the most part, on the virtues of her class, though she also shared the vices.

There is an ancient Christian tradition not to speak ill of the dead that builds on the rule of Jesus to treat others as we would be treated. We shall not see her like again and I suppose this is good. We are too broad a nation for any narrow group to keep power for long. The Eisenhower Republicans are going, she was one, and a greater Judge awaits.

Lord have mercy.

When so many can find value in the roue, surely at the hour of her death using the same charity, we can thank God for the mothers of the Greatest Generation as they go. Her generation had dignity and a sense of service. HW Bush served heroically and Barbara did her duty as she understood it. She had Roman virtues: dignity, piety, and seriousness. We are a louche age where the famous are valued more than the dignified, the unxious over the pious, flash over solidity. Her critics on the right will not forgive her errors, in part, because her virtues shame them. You cannot admire the austere while slapping moral gilding on an age. When the prodigals make home a pig pen, then the elder brother’s faults look very much like the medicine we need.

The great novelist Trollope wrote in another gilded age about a Christian Church caught in a time of transition between a dying order of aristocrats and the newly minted monied powers. The way they lived then was to worship power and money. Churchmen like the oleagineus Reverend Slope or Mrs. Proudie were characters that Trollope created with Evangelical doctrine, rigidly enforced, but a steady willingness to overlook faults in the coming men with the ready cash. Trollope did not hide the vices of the dying order, but since they were dying knew they were no danger to the future.

He was intent on saving their good qualities, so little evident in those who were replacing them. At Mrs. Bush’s death, we would be wise to attend to Trollope’s Christain wisdom.

Mrs. Bush was young in a different age, the age of Eisenhower and sound money, and died when Slope was triumphant and Mrs. Proudie could sniff at her errors. Yet quality will tell and for all his faults as a husband, George HW Bush stood guard over her in decline and did his duty at her death. Thank God she brought New England Republican values to Texas and insisted that African-Americans traveling with her would not be sent to segregated hotels. The Bush family adopted Texas, and later generations learned from Texas’ good qualities, but Barbara Bush also fought Texas racism all her life, quietly.

Texas gave the Bushes good gifts, but her old abolitionist strain keeps helping Texas in scions like George P. Bush. Thank God.

Quiet duty faithfully done is great gift to us our modern Evangelical Pastor Slopes and our present Mrs. Proudies do not understand. The daily duty faithfully performed is why her extended family rose up last week and called themselves blessed to know her. If we understand better than she, we should make sure we do our duty half as well as she: faithful wife, strong mother, loving grandmother. The greatest generation is going. The elder brothers are going and the prodigals have not come home. God help us.

Rest In Peace, Barbara Bush.


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