Remembering A President And My Dad

This week’s Courier Herald column:

President George Herbert Walker Bush died on November 30th, 2018, at the age of 94. He was preceded in death by his wife and partner of 73 years, Barbara. Together they had six children, including one who became a Governor and President, one who was also a governor, one who died of leukemia at age three.

President Bush-41 was the first President I was able to vote for, during my second year at the University of Georgia. I had been raised in a “Republican” home despite most of the occupants not knowing it at the time. Georgia, back then, was still a state run by Democrats. We “voted for the person.”

Growing up, my grandmother was the only family member I can recall stating a specific partisan affiliation, and that was because of the Gubernatorial election of Lester Maddox in 1966. The family’s House District in South Fulton County had voted for Bo Callaway. Her Representative voted for Maddox due to the Democratic Party’s “loyalty oath” when the plurality vote for Callaway was sent to the legislature for a final decision. She recounted many times that if her Representative couldn’t vote with his people, then she was done with him and his party.

And yet, the family I grew up in was mostly non-political and non-partisan. We (and I) voted for Sam Nunn. We backed Newt Gingrich when he lost twice to Jack Flynt. I can even remember a time when I was directed to vote in a Democratic primary for Governor because Johnny Isakson didn’t need the vote but Roy Barnes did over “Liberal” Zell Miller.

Yes, that’s a true story. Times and politics, they do change. The purpose of politics shouldn’t.

George H. W. Bush exemplified what public service is about. He was an ambassador to the U.N. before he was President. He was a consensus builder and a uniter. He was the last World War II veteran elected to the Presidency. The “greatest generation” has since ceded leadership to those that came after them.

My dad, Charlie Grady Harper, died on November 30th, 2000, at the age of 62. He was survived by his wife and partner of 37 years, Mamie. Together they had four children, and took responsibility for many more. None of us kids have fancy titles.

Dad didn’t have the resume of George H. W. Bush, but he was a federal civil servant for more than two decades. He, like our 41st President, believed in our country. He believed in the noble sacrifice of public service. He understood right and wrong, and as a senior auditor for several government agencies, put many people in jail for abusing the federal treasury for their own benefit. Those actions meant he also understood many would take advantage of our optimism and opportunity with their own short cuts, if they thought they could.

The first major historical event without Dad available to comfort or protect us was 9/11. George W Bush was President. He at least still had his dad to talk to, ask advice, and generally seek comfort.

It’s an eternal lesson for fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. Parents are willing and can give advice while they are around. The most important lesson, however, isn’t for parents to solve the problems. It’s for them to teach the next generation, because one day, they won’t be here to take the call. We eventually have to apply the lessons learned for ourselves.

My Dad left us too early at age 62. George H. W. Bush led a full life until age 94. Regardless, both families would love to have another hour with these men to talk and ask for one last moment of advice. It would be worth everything.

There were lessons I learned from both men that overlap. Focus on the problem you’re solving. Build consensus and coalitions where you can. You’re not alone, but there are 1,000 points of light out there working toward your same goals. There are many others.

But most of all, from the highest and lowest ends of civic engagement, both of these men that left us on November 30th, 18 years apart, believed that our country represented hope and good to the rest of the world. They knew it was our responsibility to preserve and advance this cause, and that even with those whom we disagree, we can find a path toward solutions.

These things sound awfully quaint now for a President we elected in 1988 and a Dad who gave me his last pieces of advice a couple of hours before he passed in 2000. And yet, it’s a message every one of us continues to yearn for, despite all current events drawing us to a contrary conclusion.

Politics have changed. Our ultimate end goal need not have. It’s up to us to decide how we decide to solve our problems now, and for the next generations to come.

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