'Civility, grace': What Washington could learn from Barbara Bush

Michael Mathes
Former first lady Barbara Bush (L), shown here in 1990 with Raisa Gorbachev, the wife of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, had an utter lack of pretense that some US lawmakers acknowledge is lacking in Washington today

In an era of hyper-partisan feuding and noxious personal attacks, the life and lengthy marriage of former first lady Barbara Bush serve as poignant reminders in power-obsessed Washington that decency and grace can win out.

Bush's death Tuesday at age 92 triggered an outpouring of affection for the snowy-haired matriarch of one of America's storied political dynasties.

Smart, tough and quick-witted, Bush had a no-frills style, a focus on family, and a willingness to engage across the political aisle that endeared her to millions.

And her 73-year marriage to George H.W. Bush -- the longest presidential marriage in US history -- only heightened her reputation as a fiercely loyal and honest partner in a city full of two-faced politicians.

Politics has always been a brutal game in Washington. But Bush, the wife and mother of two Republican presidents, exemplified a comity that has steadily evaporated in the posturing, intense partisanship and even name-calling that has come to dominate the US capital.

"It's important for people to reflect on the dignity, civility and grace that she brought to public life," said John Cornyn, the Senate's number two Republican and one of several senior lawmakers who discussed Bush's legacy with AFP.

"I know today we think everything's a food fight, and there don't seem to be any sort of prevailing standards when it comes to public life. And that's really our loss," he added.

"So it is reassuring to remember that there are people like her and her husband and that family who really set a very high standard, and one that I think we should aspire to."

Today's discourse in Washington often fails to clear such a high bar. President Donald Trump himself launches attacks on Twitter, using slurs to demean opponents or critics.

Lawmakers routinely lob their own verbal hand grenades at Trump and one another.

Senate Democrat Patrick Leahy, who has served in the chamber since George H.W. Bush was US ambassador to China in 1975, often opposed Bush policy -- but said the quality of character in the Bush White House shone through.

"Both my wife and I think the world of them," he said.

"A lot of people like to talk about family values and all that, and don't practice it," he said of today's politicians. "They practice it."

- 'Tribalism' -

After leaving the White House, Barbara Bush aimed to downplay the differences between Democrats and Republicans, telling National Public Radio in 1994 that party platforms "should be very broad-based and inclusive, not exclusive."

A longtime Bush friend, former congresswoman Connie Morella, said Barbara's "unpretentious" nature, candid but diplomatic approach, willingness to compromise and mutual respect are missing in today's Congress.

"It's like tribalism right now," Morella, who was picked by George W. Bush in 2003 to be US envoy to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, said in an interview Thursday.

"They don't know each other, so there's not a chance for them to respect each other."

Morella, now 87 and an ambassador in residence at American University, said Bush "is a reminder to all of us, members of Congress and voters, that this is what we admire and want."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who entered Congress when Barbara Bush's husband was president, said the late first lady "brought dignity, civility, and spirit -- we all know that -- to everything she did."

Bush's civility would likely clash with much of today's abrasive, even caustic, tone in Washington.

Retiring Republican Senator Bob Corker, who has been the target of wicked Trump tweet storms in the past, fondly recalled a visit by George and Barbara Bush to his Tennessee home in 2000.

"There was no fanfare, a lot of humility.... There was just no airs," he said.

But can that approach succeed in today's overheated, partisan Washington? "Oh gosh yeah," Corker said.