The memorial service for Barbara Bush over the weekend marked the passing of an era and a way of life.
The outpouring of praise for a woman who was an unselfconscious member of a political elite, an insider and establishmentarian, spoke to a pang of regret over a lost ethos of leadership.
George and Barbara Bush were easily — and at times, justly — pilloried as out of touch. But the passing of their kind has coincided with a national life short on grace notes and often bereft of leaders who value anything above their momentary self-interest.
In his eulogy for the “First Lady of the Greatest Generation,” author Jon Meacham said that the Bushes put “country above party, the common good above political gain and service to others above the settling of scores.”
Why? In large part, because it was bred into them. The Bushes were the products of the 20th-century WASP ascendancy.
The WASP ruling class had the right lineage and connections, it lived in high-end neighborhoods, usually in the Northeast, it went to schools like Andover and Yale, it worshipped at Episcopal or other mainline churches, it belonged to the same clubs and it did business at pedigreed investment and law firms like Brown Brothers Harriman and Covington Burling.
It wasn’t a meritocracy; it’s members were born into privilege and buoyed by inbred dealings. But they had a strong governing ethic, described by the historian Rick Brookhiser as “success depending on industry; use giving industry its task; civic-mindedness placing obligations on success, and antisensuality setting limits to the enjoyment of it; conscience watching over everything.”
At their best, the WASPs achieved greatness in public service — say, the post-World War II Secretary of State Dean Acheson (Groton, Yale, Covington Burling), who did so much to define America’s posture in the Cold War.
The instinctive patriotism and drive to serve can be seen in George H.W. Bush’s decision to sign up as a Navy aviator in World War II as an 18-year-old. His choices as an elected official could be questioned, but never his public-spiritedness. Barbara was known as the family’s “enforcer”; what she enforced were manners and standards of conduct that were ultimately about self-control and regard for others.
Undergirding it all was a profound sense of responsibility. Yes, they believed they were born to rule, but they took the obligation seriously.
The WASP ruling class had long passed its peak by the time Bush was elected president in 1988. Mainline Protestant churches had been in decline since the late 1960s. With the advent of the SAT, the Ivy League became more open to talented students without connections. The Northeast lost ground to the Sun Belt. The cultural consensus of the mid-20th century gave way, and politicians no longer felt obligated to serve in the military.
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The fate of the WASP establishment can be traced in the electoral fortunes of the Bush family. George H.W. Bush lost in 1992 to Bill Clinton, that paladin of the Baby Boomer meritocracy who had all the academic credentials but none of the class of the old elite. George W. Bush won twice, but as an evangelical Texan, not a WASP.
Jeb Bush lost in the 2016 primaries to a Donald Trump whose ostentation and boastfulness ran counter to the qualities the Bush family had so long cultivated.
The days of the WASP power-brokers are gone, and we aren’t going to entrench another ethnic elite atop our national life, nor should we. The question is whether we can generate leaders who feel a sense of responsibility again.
Yuval Levin, the editor of the journal National Affairs, argues that even the most famous and powerful people in our society adopt the pose of outsiders, relieving themselves of any sense of institutional obligation.
They could do worse than consider the example of Barbara Bush, who made responsibility an ingrained habit.
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