There is not much to say about President George H.W. Bush that has not already been said in the days celebrating the late man's heroic and honorable life. But as the nation mourned, one could sense a great longing for a return to the civility and integrity of a previous era. More than nostalgia, it was an acknowledgment that our national life has become bitter and crude. It is easy to blame the current occupant of the White House, but the truth is our downward spiral began long before Donald Trump became president. Our current politics reflect this decline, but it is the larger culture that shares much of the blame. And in that sense, it is not just elites who set trends but the population that follows and embraces them.
I was struck on the day of President Bush's funeral that The Washington Post featured an op-ed bemoaning the decision by the social network Tumblr to ban pornography and most nudity. "The site's announcement on Monday that it would remove 'photos, videos, and GIFs of human genitalia, female-presenting nipples, and any media involving sex acts, including illustrations' from its public-facing platform was greeted with a mass display of mourning," wrote Molly Roberts. Mourning? It says something that smut has become so mainstream that a major newspaper would publish an article decrying a decision by a private company to ban it.
So what's the link to politics? It may seem far-fetched to suggest that the broad acceptance of pornography has anything to do with the degradation of our political life. But culture is all-encompassing; the large encompasses the small. Cultures that devalue human dignity in its many forms are not likely to place a high value on something as mundane as civility in our civic life.
President Bush was the last of the Greatest Generation to be president of the United States. He came of age at a time when manners and morals mattered. Sex was private. Taking a picture of one's body and sharing it with strangers would have been considered aberrant behavior, and viewing such pictures would have been shameful, even if sometimes done. But the advent of the sexual revolution changed everything, and its impact was felt in politics as it was everywhere.
President Bush's immediate successor, Bill Clinton, helped join the two — sex and politics — very publicly. Clinton's sexual dalliance with a 21-year-old White House intern at first shocked most Americans. In an earlier era, Clinton would have resigned once it became public. He didn't because too many Americans decided his behavior was irrelevant, even if conducted in the Oval Office, with feminists defending him despite the enormous power imbalance between the president and a young staffer. Is it surprising that a sex-saturated public would turn a blind eye to Trump's talk about grabbing women by their genitals or paying off a porn star and a Playboy Playmate with whom he'd had relationships?
We have surrendered our ability to make judgments. We've embraced a culture in which pretty much anything goes, not just to be tolerated but to be celebrated. And this libertine attitude spreads at the speed of the internet. It is not just sex and violence but radical politics, available all the time to anyone with Wi-Fi.
It is hard to imagine a political leader in the mold of George H.W. Bush emerging ever again, a man who communicated by handwritten notes and not tweets, who turned political adversaries into friends. What is needed is a revival of not simply civility but decency. And decency is broad. We need to take a hard look at our culture. The way we talk, the way we treat others, our mores and morals, the many facets of our lives can't be separated from who we are as a nation. If we want better leaders, we must become a better people.
Linda Chavez is chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center. To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.