Many state and federal government offices were closed last Wednesday to mark a National Day of Mourning for President George H.W. Bush. Flags were at half-staff and Governor LePage ordered that both the Stars and Stripes and the State of Maine flag are to be flown at half-staff for 30 days.
The former president’s casket lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda, supported by the Lincoln Catafalque, a bier made in a hurry from rough pine boards in 1865 when that president’s body lay in state.
Some folks found all the hubbub a head-scratcher. Why so much emotion over a one-term president from a generation ago who presided over the end of the Cold War but whose predecessor got the “Tear down this wall!” line? Candidates for office today are much more likely to cite Ronald Reagan as an inspiration and model. And alongside Bush Sr.’s accomplishments are fair questions about divisive campaign ads, the use of presidential pardons and the costs and consequences of the First Gulf War.
But it may be that, as was true after Lincoln’s death, the mourning and reflection are about more than the death of a person who for a few years held immense power. We mourn the parents or teachers we don’t know how we’ll get along without. We mourn family and friends who never returned from war, or were never the same after returning. We mourn a sense of national unity that seems further and further beyond our grasp.
“The nation mourned Lincoln as it had never mourned before,” Adam Goodheart wrote in a National Geographic story about Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train in 2015. “In the process, it … established a new ritual of American citizenship: the shared moment of national tragedy, when a restless Republic’s busy life falls silent.”
The ritual is a healthy exercise, not because President Bush was a saint but because it holds promise of inspiring the better angels of our nature