"Life is service to the end." At the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, the former president said this in a video lead-in to his live remarks. As most of the analysts on television news shows were talking about his "legacy" in the past tense, and former staff members were nostalgic and emotional, Bush was looking forward.
It was, appropriately, a library-like atmosphere. The former president's words were reflective, and had the advantage of not being received in a hyper-political context.
Bush talked about the "purpose of public office" in a democracy. It's "not to fulfill personal ambition." He said: "Elected officials must serve a cause greater than themselves. The political winds blow left and right. Polls rise and fall. Supporters come and go. But in the end, leaders are defined by the convictions they hold."
And then he talked about freedom and how our country should expand its reach. Freedom, the former president said, is a "gift from God and the hope of every human heart. Freedom inspired our founders and preserved our union through civil war and secured the promise of civil rights. Freedom sustains dissidents bound by chains, believers huddled in underground churches and voters who risk their lives to cast their ballots. Freedom unleashes creativity, rewards innovation and replaces poverty with prosperity. And ultimately, freedom lights the path to peace."
And he talked about the responsibilities we have for one another as well. "Freedom brings responsibility. Independence from the state does not mean isolation from each other. A free society thrives when neighbors help neighbors and the strong protect the weak and public policies promote private compassion. As president, I tried to act on these principles every day. It wasn't always easy, and it certainly wasn't always popular."
It isn't easy or popular in daily life, either.
The opening of the library could have been a civic holiday -- I wish it had been. It stood as a reminder, a lesson, a pep talk, and a rally, even a beacon. When a president says such things during an inaugural address, they are controversial because of the immediate policy implications. But here, remarks such as this help us reflect. I wish we all had an opportunity to stop and join in this momentary retreat from partisan politics.
In politics, we tend to use and abuse words to such an extent that meaning becomes lost, if a common meaning even existed in the first place. And instead of making sure we're on the same page, our media-saturated, shock-driven culture only adds to the division. The quiet, studied words of the former president helped bring things into perspective.
"Ultimately, the success of a nation depends on the character of its citizens," Bush said. Even in the midst of terrorist attacks, we saw some beautiful characters. Like the Marine who'd lost his legs to war, visiting the hospital rooms of Boston marathon runners and bearing a message of hope.
When the news broke that former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher had died, an insightful interview with her resurfaced, in which she talked about her faith and sense of mission. She said: "Christianity is about more than doing good works. It is a deep faith which expresses itself in your relationship to God. It is a sanctity, and no politician is entitled to take that away from you or to have what I call corporate state activities which only look at interests as a whole."
She also said: "Governments aren't Big Brother ... If you treat people as so many pawns on a chessboard, you have no Christian base, no religious base, no religion at all. It's as if the whole of religion had come to: 'What can governments do about these things?'"
As we struggle with fear and violence and hope, it's important to reflect on these things. Freedom -- to believe, not to believe, to infuse our politics with a purpose greater than our own strategies, ideologies and personal ambitions. Knowing that our politics reflects the character of our citizens ought to keep us from giving up on it.