Bush and McCain Were Linked by a Fading Concept: Duty and Honor

A military honor guard carried the coffin of former President George Bush into St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston on Wednesday. Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — In the aftermath of his 1992 defeat to Bill Clinton, then-President George Bush complained bitterly in a letter to his brother Jonathan about how he had been portrayed in the campaign that ended his long career in politics.

“I guess what I hate the most is the charge by the liberals in the media that I never stood for anything,” Mr. Bush wrote, citing “education, home ownership, points of light, less regulation, less taxes, etc.”

Yet Mr. Bush’s passing reference to policy issues, which he put in parentheses, was quickly followed by a more convincing summation of what drew him to public office. “What I want to have people know I stood for were ‘Duty, Honor, Country,’ and, yes, as Dad taught us, ‘service.’”

The deaths this year of Mr. Bush and Senator John McCain have been described as the passing of an era, the demise of pragmatic Republicanism. But neither of the two onetime naval aviators was anchored in ideology, veering between moderation and conservatism depending on the political needs of the moment.

What has seemingly been lost with Mr. Bush’s burial Thursday in College Station, Tex., and Mr. McCain’s in Annapolis, Md., in September is what could be called the “Duty, Honor, Country” Party.

Service itself, not any sweeping agenda, was the aim of this class of officeholders. And accommodations on issues were often made (and as often regretted) in order to win or stay in office.

Born before the baby boom generation, these lawmakers were forged by the Great Depression, World War II and a Cold War consensus politics underpinned by the idea that there were far greater threats than the opposing party. They also came of age at a time when military service was common; wartime bonds and shared cultural touchstones often trumped partisan differences; and zeal was not required for elected office.

Mr. Bush was a naval aviator during World War II.

“That’s what the voters wanted at the time,” said David Boren, the former Oklahoma governor and senator who was first elected to office the same year as Mr. Bush: 1966. “They wanted moderate people who’d reach across the aisle and find the best solution.”

Of course, the driving force propelling these politicians was not only a high-minded ethos of public spiritedness: Ambition, ego and paternalism were also at work.

But while Mr. Bush was rooted in the Eastern elite and Mr. McCain hailed from a storied military family, this era of leaders was not all to the manner born. Former Senators Daniel K. Inouye and Bob Dole — the former a son of a Japanese immigrant and the latter a son of the Kansas plains, who first met in a military hospital after being wounded in World War II — were both archetypes of this period and were hardly imbued with noblesse oblige.

They were stewards of the country, and that was the point.

“They both believed that when you were elected to public office, your first responsibility was to solve the problems that come in your inbox,” Mark Salter, Mr. McCain’s longtime chief of staff, said of the senator and the 41st president, citing their principles but “lack of…

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