On George Bush (41), Lady Gaga, and a stronger, kinder, gentler nation
The unpardonable slander against George Herbert Walker Bush was the claim that he was a wimp. Objectively, this claim was patently untrue: Not only did he serve honorably as the President of the United States, he also had served as the director of the CIA and as a World War II fighter pilot (with 58 combat missions and a Distinguished Flying Cross to his name). None of those count as jobs for wimps.
■ But sometimes the slander stuck, thanks in no small part to its appearance the cover of Newsweek. And it undoubtedly lingered in part because Bush didn't spend his Presidency thundering about his enemies, but instead called for a kinder, gentler nation.
■ In his inaugural address, Bush made an earnest plea: "America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the Nation and gentler the face of the world. My friends, we have work to do." He coupled that kindness to strength: "For we are given power not to advance our own purposes, nor to make a great show in the world, nor a name. There is but one just use of power, and it is to serve people."
■ The cultural decoupling of the virtues of strength and kindness is one of the gravest errors a society can make. There is nothing inherently unkind about strength, nor is there anything inherently weak about kindness. In fact, it can well be argued that many virtues require temperance and moderation. For example: Mercy is the privilege of the strong. Nobody pleads for mercy from a position of dominance, and nobody can grant it from a place of submission.
■ It is hard for self-confident people to understand the magnetism of the unkind "strong man" act put on by authoritarians and their admirers. It just doesn't make sense: Why would any member of the public with a decent sense of self-respect be attracted to displays of faux strength put on by clearly indecent people?
■ President Bush wasn't wrong in his desires for kindness and gentility. But our models for those virtues may occasionally show up in unexpected ways. Televised awards programs are generally unremarkable affairs, but at the 2022 Oscar awards, marred otherwise by a literal slap in the face, Lady Gaga put on a display of confident kindness that was truly a master class for anyone watching.
■ Escorting a diminished but still exuberant Liza Minnelli onto the stage, the contemporary artist with a flair for the dramatic demonstrated a laudable capacity to show authentic human kindness, gracefully helping her stage partner to overcome a moment of becoming flustered -- while retaining the confidence that nothing was being taken away from herself by the act.
■ More than just being a satisfying emotional display (which indeed it was), it also showed how a person with self-confidence and grace could bring out the best in someone else through the leverage of their own kindness. Lady Gaga could have carried the scene entirely on her own, but she gave the audience more by centering on Liza Minnelli instead. (She's done much the same alongside Tony Bennett.)
■ It may seem unexpected to see George H.W. Bush and Lady Gaga as fellow-travelers, but in this sense, at least, they offer parallel models: Strength isn't diminished by kindness. One is enhanced by the other. And we ought to admire -- and emulate -- when we see them operating hand-in-hand.