- - Tuesday, December 4, 2018


When our national discontents have been compared to the onset of another civil war, let us be grateful for four contrarian examples, lives lived so well that they illuminate times in our history when character was in season.

In 2018, the first of these to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda was Billy Graham, America’s preacher, who lived for nearly a century. His life stands as an example not only to the power of the Christian gospel but as a testimony to the elegant simplicity of the command “love thy neighbor.” The most moving tribute at his funeral was from one of his daughters. She described a pivotal moment of her life when, fresh from a recent divorce, she dreaded facing her father’s disappointment. Instead, she was enfolded by his warm embrace, the power of the prodigal’s return renewing hope to all of us who understand about preacher’s kids.

It is a measure of our troubles that Sen. John McCain’s funeral was suffused in controversy. It should not have been, because he was a living example of patriotism overcoming partisanship. As with Billy Graham, the most moving tribute was from his daughter. She eloquently described the decades of a life fiercely devoted to principles — like courage, honor and devotion to country — once considered the bedrock of the American character. Yet John McCain had also been wonderfully cantankerous and forthright, insisting that disagreement over those values was not grounds for disloyalty or disrespect.

The warm applause that echoed her remarks suggested that others might be wondering if the search for common ground was a “means test” of our national character. If so, were we failing? The Senate confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh followed shortly thereafter, underlining that those concerns were well-placed. In the all-important campaign to ensure that judicial fiat would continue to order the slaughter of the unborn, moderation was abandoned and every form of deception endorsed.

Sometimes you have to marvel how George and Barbara Bush — those other two contrarian but timely examples — could have been produced by such a society. Slightly younger contemporaries of Billy Graham, they were not only shaped by World War II but also molded by the very same precepts that gave us the Greatest Generation. In the most profound sense, the nation owes its existence to such men and women. Exactly where and when did we as a people retreat from those standards?

I had the privilege of meeting them only once, during a conference at the newly-opened Bush presidential library at Texas A&M. Our topic was military intervention, timely because the second Clinton administration had slashed defense while inventing a bevy of new peacekeeping missions. Not long before, I had returned from one of them in Bosnia, a place most Americans couldn’t find on a map. The museum’s well-appointed exhibits brought you face-to-face with the photos and memorabilia of young Lt. (j.g.) Bush, the intrepid naval aviator who somehow survived the war that took so many of his comrades-in-arms.

That evening, I joined a small group for dinner with the presidential couple. Naturally enough, the conversation soon turned to intervention, specifically to what President Bush had been thinking and feeling before ordering American troops into combat in Kuwait during Desert Storm. His answer was precisely what you would have expected — that we only put American troops in harm’s way when compelled to do so by national interests. And even then, only when we have allies, the means to prevail and mission objectives clearly limited in time and space.

But what stays with me 20 years later is his description of the emotions he felt as president, knowing the price of combat learned as a young man, feeling both the weight of his decision and their effects on the lives of other young men and women. As President Bush described those feelings, Barbara Bush nodded silently at his elbow, maybe recalling her own emotions as the waiting fiance of that carrier pilot, a world away from combat but sharing it with him. Because of those experiences, the president and his bride were linked to the families of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines bearing the burden of Desert Storm. Although President Bush never gave way to emotion, I doubt there was a dry eye in the room when he finished.

It is hard to imagine life without these four giants from our past, all distinguished by children who publicly blessed their memories. Maybe those wildfires in California, terrible as they were, came at just the right moment by reminding us to love our neighbors. Sharing tragedies as well as triumphs is what unites us as people — and ultimately as a nation.

• Ken Allard, a retired U.S. Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national security issues.

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