TIME conflict

From Gaza to Ukraine, the Effects of World War I Persist

We still live in the long shadow of a war that began a century ago

It was supposed to be over in a matter of weeks. In the summer of 1914, the European war that began in the aftermath of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand drew great armies into the fields, launched ships of war upon the seas and engaged imperial ambitions and fears. There was, however, a sense of optimism among several of the combatants, an expectation that victory would be quick. “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees,” Kaiser Wilhelm II told the German troops in the first week of August.

Of course, it wasn’t over by the time the leaves fell, and what became known as the Great War really isn’t over even now. From the downing of the civilian Malaysian airliner by Moscow-supported insurgents over Ukraine to the Israeli-Palestinian combat in Gaza to Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Iran, the troubles of our time directly descend from the world of 1914–18, the era that inflamed ethnic and nationalistic impulses and led to the ultimate creation of new nation-states, especially in the Middle East.

To understand the madness of the moment, then, one needs to take a long view–one that begins in 1914 and not, as many Democrats would have it, with the election of George W. Bush or, as many Republicans think, with the election of Barack Obama. The spectrum of political conversation in our time is, to borrow a phrase from Abraham Lincoln, inadequate to the stormy present.

The 19th century has been said to have ended in 1914, with a war that became, in the words of historian David Fromkin, “in many ways the largest conflict that the planet has ever known.” One could argue that the 20th century lasted only 75 years, ending under the Administration of George H.W. Bush, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the death of the Soviet Union (itself a product of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917). As the news of this summer reminds us, we are now in a world much like that of 1914, without a truly controlling order.

Americans who grew accustomed to a largely static balance of power during the Cold War must teach themselves to think in kaleidoscopic terms, not binary ones. Our national imagination is still partly shaped by the FDR-JFK rhetoric of American responsibility and the idea that we are capable of bearing any burden and paying any price to bend the world to our purposes. Yet we must be realistic–not defeatist but realistic–about our power. While we should never give up the conviction that we can effectively exert our will around the globe, we should also appreciate that any undertaking is inherently limited, a point supported by the experience of the American President of the 1914–18 era, Woodrow Wilson, who believed that the war of that age would end all wars. He was wrong–woefully so. The first Bush was closer to the mark when he spoke, usually privately, of how foreign policy was about “working the problem,” not finding grand, all-encompassing solutions to intrinsically messy questions.

And those questions today remain urgent and dangerous. In his insightful book Europe’s Last Summer, Fromkin writes that “it takes two or more to keep the peace, but only one to start a war … An aggressor can start a major war even today and even if other great powers desire to stay at peace–unless other nations are powerful enough to deter it.” To think of another conventional conflict on the scale of the Great War–16 million dead, 20 million more wounded–stretches credulity. Still, the forces of ambition, greed and pride are perennial in the lives of men and of nations, and wars of any size bring with them large and unintended consequences.

Summing up August 1914, historian Barbara Tuchman wrote, “Men could not sustain a war of such magnitude and pain without hope–the hope that its very enormity would ensure that it could never happen again and the hope that when somehow it had been fought through to a resolution, the foundations of a better-ordered world would have been laid.” We know now that such hope was illusory. It did happen again, from 1939 to 1945, and now, a century on, we live in a world that remains vulnerable to chaos and mischance and misery. Such, though, is the nature of reality and of history, and we have no choice but to muddle through. There is, in the end, no other alternative, whether the leaves are on or off the trees.

TIME President Roosevelt

FDR’s D-Day Prayer

Listen to the words that President Franklin D. Roosevelt used to mark Operation Overlord on June 6, 1944

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One of his sons once referred to Franklin Roosevelt as a “frustrated clergyman.” The president, an Episcopalian, loved liturgy and found the cadences of the Book of Common Prayer and of the King James Bible at once stirring and reassuring. And so the time came for Overlord—what his friend and colleague Winston Churchill called “the most difficult and complicated operation that has ever taken place”—FDR decided to commemorate the moment and address the nation not with a Fireside Chat or a grand speech but with a prayer of his own composition.

The White House distributed the text on the morning of June 6, 1944, so that the afternoon newspapers could publish it and listeners could pray along with Roosevelt when he broadcast that evening. With an estimated audience of 100 million, FDR was to lead what must rank as one of the largest mass prayers in human history. Here are his words, spoken in an hour of peril and of promise.

The prayer in the video above is an abridged version. The complete text appears below.

My fellow Americans: Last night, when I spoke with you about the fall of Rome, I knew at that moment that troops of the United States and our allies were crossing the Channel in another and greater operation. It has come to pass with success thus far.

And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer:

Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.

Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.

They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.

They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest-until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.

For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.

Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.

And for us at home — fathers, mothers, children, wives, sisters, and brothers of brave men overseas — whose thoughts and prayers are ever with them–help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice.

Many people have urged that I call the Nation into a single day of special prayer. But because the road is long and the desire is great, I ask that our people devote themselves in a continuance of prayer. As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking Thy help to our efforts.

Give us strength, too — strength in our daily tasks, to redouble the contributions we make in the physical and the material support of our armed forces.

And let our hearts be stout, to wait out the long travail, to bear sorrows that may come, to impart our courage unto our sons wheresoever they may be.

And, O Lord, give us Faith. Give us Faith in Thee; Faith in our sons; Faith in each other; Faith in our united crusade. Let not the keenness of our spirit ever be dulled. Let not the impacts of temporary events, of temporal matters of but fleeting moment let not these deter us in our unconquerable purpose.

With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogancies. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister Nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.

Thy will be done, Almighty God.

Amen.

TIME

The Winding Road to D-Day

FDR's patient diplomacy in 1942 and '43 made Operation Overlord possible in '44

It was, Winston Churchill noted at the time, “a strange Christmas Eve.” Only weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent German declaration of war on the U.S., he crossed the Atlantic aboard H.M.S. Duke of York for conversations with Franklin D. Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt was asked to lay in stocks of brandy, champagne and whiskey (Churchill brought his own cigars); the work at hand was to be all-consuming. “Almost the whole world is locked in deadly struggle,” Churchill said at the lighting of the national Christmas tree, “and, with the most terrible weapons which science can devise, the nations advance upon each other.” The issue before Churchill and FDR was the most fundamental of all: how best to wage a world war against the Axis powers.

During the discussions, British and U.S. officials affirmed the strategic primacy of defeating Germany. The other potential global foe, Japan, would be taken on only secondarily. With his industrial might and Continental base, Adolf Hitler was viewed as the predominating opponent whose defeat the Anglo-American alliance would come to see as the common cause.

On the 70th anniversary of operation Overlord, the amphibious assault on Nazi-occupied Europe, we understandably celebrate the Normandy landings as the central act of the 20th century; what Churchill called “the most difficult and complicated operation that has ever taken place” is one of the great hinges of history. Yet the road to the opening of the second front in northwestern Europe was by no means a simple one. The story of D-Day is as much about years of diplomatic skirmishing among Churchill, Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin as it is about the landings on the beaches where President Obama and other world leaders gathered. And in that convoluted tale lies a lesson in leadership, for FDR’s patient maneuvering in 1941, ’42 and ’43 was that of a President at once constrained and determined as he sought the right answer in the calamitous times. What seems straightforward in retrospect was, in real time, highly improvisational–and at moments, dare we say it, Roosevelt led from behind.

As 1942 began, several key U.S. figures–notably Army Chief of Staff George Marshall and General Dwight Eisenhower–argued for a predictably American strategy. If the target was Germany first, they argued, then hit Germany first, hard and quickly. The fastest way to relieve the immense pressure on Stalin was to cross the English Channel in 1942. There was a problem, though: Churchill.

The Prime Minister was averse to a large-scale strike against Germany for at least two reasons. The first was biographical. As First Lord of the Admiralty during World War I, Churchill had presided over the disastrous Gallipoli strategy that killed 28,000 British soldiers in the ill-considered invasion of Turkey. The experience crushed him. As scholars have long noted, the second reason was his tendency to prefer secondary operations on the periphery of Hitler’s empire, in the hopes of weakening the enemy at less cost and–though this was and is much disputed–placing British troops in position to protect colonial and postwar interests.

Stalin, for his part, wanted a second front in Europe not today, not tomorrow, but yesterday. And so Roosevelt found himself in the midst of a push-and-pull between London and Moscow. Churchill carried the day for 1942 and ’43, arguing for other operations and suggesting that there were not yet sufficient resources to mount a successful attack on the French coast. As much as FDR wanted to take the direct route across the Channel, he at first sided with Churchill against Stalin, approving a Mediterranean strategy.

For Roosevelt the hour of decision came at Tehran in November 1943. Stalin pressed and pressed for a cross-Channel operation. Churchill, while agreeing in principle, managed to raise a seemingly infinite number of reasons to delay. Stalin spoke starkly: Were his Western allies with him or not? Roosevelt then made his choice, insisting on Overlord and overruling Churchill. The industrial might of America had by now built a huge war machine; the men were trained; and in that moment in the Tehran autumn, the new world of competing superpowers–with Britain in a subsidiary role–came into being.

Roosevelt was right to make the call he made at Tehran, which led to Overlord in June 1944. Churchill was also right early on in resisting a hasty cross-Channel operation. “It is fun to be in the same decade with you,” Roosevelt once told Churchill. It may have been fun, but for the generations that followed it was far greater than that–it was providential.

TIME

The Winding Road to D-Day

Washington Conference: Churchill And Roosevelt
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and American President Franklin D, Roosevelt at a special meeting of the Pacific War Council during World War Two on June 26, 1942. Keystone-France—Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

FDR’s patient diplomacy in 1942 and 1943 made Operation Overlord possible in 1944

It was, Winston Churchill noted at the time, “a strange Christmas Eve.” Only weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent German declaration of war on the U.S., Churchill crossed the Atlantic aboard the H.M.S. Duke of York for conversations with Franklin D. Roosevelt in December 1941. Eleanor Roosevelt was asked to lay in stocks of brandy, champagne and whiskey (Churchill brought his own cigars); the work at hand was to be all-consuming. “Almost the whole world is locked in deadly struggle,” Churchill said during the lighting of the National Christmas Tree, “and, with the most terrible weapons which science can devise, the nations advance upon each other.” The issue before Churchill and FDR was the most fundamental of all: how best to wage a world war against the Axis powers.

During the discussions, British and American officials affirmed the earlier product of joint staff talks. Code-named ABC-1, the military conferences, held in Washington in the first months of 1941, had asserted the primacy of defeating Germany first. The other potential global foe, Japan, would be taken on only secondarily. With his industrial might and Continental base, Adolf Hitler was viewed as the predominating opponent whose defeat the Anglo-American alliance would come to see as the common cause.

On the 70th anniversary of Operation Overlord, the amphibious assault on Nazi-occupied Europe, we understandably celebrate the Normandy landings as the central act of the 20th century; what Churchill called “the most difficult and complicated operation that has ever taken place” is one of the great hinges of history. Yet the road to the opening of the Second Front in northwest Europe was by no means a simple one. The story of D-Day is as much about years of diplomatic skirmishing among Churchill, Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin as it is about the landings themselves on the beaches where President Obama and other world leaders will gather this week. And in that convoluted tale lies a lesson in leadership, for FDR’s patient maneuvering in 1941, ’42 and ’43 was that of a President at once constrained and determined as he sought the right answer in the calamitous times. What seems straightforward in retrospect was, in real time, highly improvisational—­and at moments, dare we say it, Franklin Roosevelt led from behind.

As 1942 began, several key American figures—­notably Army Chief of Staff George Marshall and General Dwight Eisenhower—argued for a predictably American strategy. If the target were Germany first, they argued, then hit Germany first, hard and quickly. The fastest way to relieve the immense pressure on Stalin was to cross the English Channel in 1942. There was a problem, though: Winston Churchill.

The Prime Minister was averse to a large-scale strike against Germany for at least two reasons. The first was biographical. As First Lord of the Admiralty during World War I, Churchill had presided over the disastrous Gallipoli strategy that killed 28,000 British soldiers in the ill-considered invasion of Turkey. The experience crushed him. (Afterward he resigned from the government and led an infantry battalion at the front in France.) As scholars have long noted, the second reason was his tendency to prefer secondary operations on the periphery of Hitler’s empire, in the hopes of weakening the enemy at less cost and—though this was and is much disputed—placing British troops in position to protect colonial and postwar interests.

Stalin, for his part, wanted a Second Front in Europe not today, not tomorrow, but yesterday. And so Roosevelt found himself in the midst of a push-and-pull between London and Moscow. Churchill carried the day for 1942 and ’43, arguing for other operations and suggesting that there were not yet sufficient resources to mount a successful attack on the French coast. As much as FDR wanted to take the direct route across the Channel, he at first sided with Churchill against Stalin, approving a Mediterranean strategy.

For Roosevelt the hour of decision came at Tehran in November 1943. Stalin pressed and pressed for a cross-Channel operation, and Churchill, while always agreeing in principle, managed to raise a seemingly infinite number of reasons to delay. Stalin spoke starkly: Were his Western allies truly with him or not? Roosevelt then made his choice, insisting on Overlord and overruling Churchill. The industrial might of America had by now built a huge war machine; the men were trained; and in that moment in the Tehran autumn, the new world of competing superpowers, with Britain in a subsidiary role, came into being.

Roosevelt was right to make the call he made at Tehran, which led to Overlord in June 1944; Churchill was also right early on in resisting a hasty cross-Channel operation. “It is fun to be in the same decade with you,” Roosevelt once told Churchill. For the rest of us, it was more than fun. As the triumph of Overlord proved beyond doubt, it was providential.

TIME politics

Brown v. Board of Education: Few Revolutions Are Ever Truly Complete

Sixty years since the historic Supreme Court ruling, the work of making equal opportunity real for all Americans is not over.

It was supposed to have been a slow news day. Reporters covering the Supreme Court had been told not to expect very much on Monday, May 17, 1954, when the court’s press officer shifted signals. “Reading of the segregation decisions is about to begin in the courtroom,” said Banning E. Whittington, while putting on his coat and leading a pack of journalists up a flight of marble steps into the chamber, and into history, according to The New York Times.

It was 1 p.m. when newly confirmed Chief Justice Earl Warren began to read the opinion of the court in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. The key sentence was unpoetic, but it belongs in American scripture as surely as any words of Jefferson’s or Lincoln’s do: “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” With these words the American Revolution that had begun in the aftermath of the French and Indian War on the North American continent in the latter half of the 18th century entered a new and dazzling phase.

In his important history of the pre-Brown South, the late writer John Egerton brilliantly captured the moment of Warren’s announcement 60 Mays ago. “In the most fundamental way, everything came together around this court decision, around the issue of race and education,” Egerton wrote in his 1994 book Speak Now Against the Day.

For the past quarter of a century, Americans in general and Southerners in particular had been contending with one another over rights and privileges and responsibilities, over race and color, caste and class. They might have chosen another issue, such as the right to vote, as the primary vehicle for this monumental debate. They might have, but they didn’t. Every American citizen had a direct interest in public education; millions of them saw it as the key to the future well-being of their families. The ballot was crucial, without a doubt, but education struck every chord on the scale: age, sex, race, religion, occupation, residence, language, nationality.

Two points come to mind on this 60th anniversary. The first is about the primacy of politics and the indispensability, in our system of popular government, of at once respecting and shaping public opinion. The nation was fortunate that Warren was where he was when the crisis of the Brown decision came. As a politician—a former Republican governor of California and vice-presidential nominee on the 1948 GOP ticket that lost to President Truman—Warren knew that a unanimous court was essential in such a difficult hour. And so he worked hard behind the scenes to produce a 9-0 decision, work that included bringing around justices from Alabama and Kentucky. The Brown opinion was the work of a man who respected politics despite its inherent limitations and frustrations.

The second point, and it is related to the first, is that few revolutions are ever truly complete. The 1954 decision was epochal—but it was only the beginning. The following year the court returned with an enforcement decision to make clear that it was quite serious about ending the segregationist order made possible by Plessy v. Ferguson. And as we all know, the work of making the promise of equal opportunity real for all Americans is not over even now. That’s worth remembering on even the slowest of news days.

TIME

Obama’s Shades of Gray

President Obama Makes Statement On Tensions In Ukraine
Cowering? Obama is under fire from the right for being reluctant to act overseas Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images

His critics say he’s weak and whiny. But he’s doing what most Presidents do: muddling through

“For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?”
—Shakespeare’s Richard II

It has been ever thus. From Shakespeare’s deposed Richard II to Lyndon Johnson, from Henry V to Bill Clinton, outsize ambition often brings along outsize emotional needs. Theodore H. White, the Time-Life chronicler of U.S. presidential campaigns, once defined what he called “the politician’s optic,” in which the hostile language in any press story leaps off the page. By the same token, White wrote, even the slightest compliment to an opponent “swells to double-size capitals” in the politician’s gaze. “This is an occupational disease of politicians,” wrote White, “just as it is for authors and actors, who similarly live by public approval or distaste.”

During the Bay of Pigs invasion in early 1961, White’s most iconic protagonist, John F. Kennedy, was so consumed with the demands of the presidency that he greeted an ambitious Barry Goldwater with a question: “So you want this f-cking job?”

A cool, intellectual U.S. President in the ­maelstrom and in something of a bad mood about it: the parallels between 1961 and 2014 are at best faint, but the general image of an American leader trying to exert his power over a resistant world by controversial means does bring us to the prevailing narrative about Barack Obama’s foreign policy. Forgotten, apparently, is the President who killed Osama bin Laden and has aggressively conducted drone warfare. In the new conventional wisdom, Obama is said to be conducting a weak foreign policy that is damaging U.S. prestige and power. Faced with criticism of his stewardship of our place in the world, moreover, the President has been portrayed as a self-absorbed whiner who’s making too much of his view that there are practical limits to what the U.S. can do to advance its interests. In chattering-­class shorthand, we’ve moved from the cowboy diplomacy of George W. Bush to the cowering diplomacy of Barack ­Obama—from unthoughtful hawk to self-­pitying dud.

You can imagine the joy the President takes in such criticism. Well, actually we don’t have to imagine it. We can hear it directly from him in the transcripts of a press conference in the Philippines. Dismissing the possibilities of direct military action in Syria and Ukraine, Obama said, “Where we can make a difference using all the tools we’ve got in the toolkit, well, we should do so. And if there are occasions where targeted, clear actions can be taken that would make a difference, then we should take them. We don’t do them because somebody sitting in an office in Washington or New York thinks it would look strong. That’s not how we make foreign policy.” The way it is made, he said, “may not always be sexy. That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows. But it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”

To Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, Obama’s Manila soliloquy was one of whining and whinging: “The American President should not perpetually use the word eventually. And he should not set a tone of resignation with references to this being a relay race and say he’s willing to take ‘a quarter of a loaf or half a loaf,’ and muse that things may not come ‘to full fruition on your timetable’ … A singles hitter doesn’t scare anybody … It doesn’t feel like leadership. It doesn’t feel like you’re in command of your world.”

The sound you may hear in the background is that of the goalposts of American punditry being moved up and down the field. Not so long ago the common wisdom held that Bush 43 was shredding our alliances with a swaggering unilateralism, refusing to acknowledge the complexities of the early 21st century world. Now, in the blink of the historical eye, Obama is being routinely maligned as professorial, an ineffective multilateralist (a damning combination, that) who is acting like a latter-day Lord Halifax, the British Foreign Secretary who was willing to entertain the possibility of talks with the Axis in 1940. From the perspective of as serious an observer as Charles Krauthammer, Obama’s foreign policy is a catalog of compounding weakness from Syria to Ukraine and beyond.

Yet Obama is choosing limited action in many spheres because he believes that more expansive action may create more problems than it would solve. He is a pragmatist who has always been depicted, particularly by his opponents, as an ideologue. Obama’s vision of U.S. power is much more in keeping with John Quincy Adams’ adage that we should not seek out monsters to destroy than with the muscular globalism of Bush’s second Inaugural Address, a speech that argued America’s overriding purpose was to end tyranny wherever it might flourish.

American foreign policy has proved most effective when it has found itself somewhere between Adams and Bush. In modern times, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush tended to exercise national power in ways that balanced democratic idealism with political realism. Depending on the moment, they reached out or held back, projected power or kept the powder dry. The art of decision often—not always but ­often—­benefits from a cautious ­weighing of the relative costs of action and inaction. Lord knows, we get things wrong—we have fought unwise wars, ignored the plights of persecuted peoples, sent contradictory signals—but by and large, generation in and generation out, we have, in British journalist and economist Walter Bagehot’s phrase, muddled through.

The question now is whether Obama is muddling through in the manner of his better predecessors or is at once withdrawn and weak. The fairest critique of recent events is that his drawing a “red line” in ­Syria and then deciding to say, in effect, “Never mind” was a mistake with serious consequences both there and in the wider world. Statecraft 101 teaches that you don’t issue ultimatums you aren’t determined to live up to. (Even Obama’s most fervent friends admit Syria was poorly handled.) Vladimir Putin’s expansionism is deeply troubling, and arming the Ukrainians with weapons more substantial than Meals Ready to Eat makes sense, but does Obama’s caution in the Russian crisis really rise to 1930s-level appeasement? Did Bush’s essential acquiescence in the invasion of Georgia make him a squish, or was it a rational decision based on a cost-benefit analysis of what America could ­effectively do?

Russia is a complicated problem—we oppose Putin on his drive for more territory but need him on Iran and Syria. The real issue comes down to sanctions, the stronger the better. “If America fails to act—and I’m not talking about deploying troops, but tough, smart ­sanctions—at times when we can act,” says Senator Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, then “we may be heading in a direction that makes a major conflict more likely, not less.”

Corker is a sensible man, and he’s right that there’s plenty to worry about. It is disproportionate, however, to think of Obama as an existential failure. And yet the criticism will never end. Reflecting on the vagaries of popular opinion, Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend who was under public attack, “If you meant to escape malice you should have confined yourself within the sleepy line of regular duty.” Obama understands that, even if he–like Shakespeare’s kings and Teddy White’s presidents–doesn’t like it.

In a preface to a series of lectures about White House decisionmaking that his adviser Theodore ­Sorensen published in 1963, Kennedy observed, “­Every President must endure a gap between what he would like and what is possible.” As do we all.

TIME

George H.W. Bush Relishes the Twilight

George H. W. Bush during an event in the East Room of the White House July 15, 2013 in Washington, DC.
George H. W. Bush during an event in the East Room of the White House July 15, 2013 in Washington, DC. Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images

The 41st President talks about how he is remembered. "It's 'kinder and gentler' all over the place," he says, enjoying a change in regard for his presidency and being witness to another Bush boomlet

He loved it all—the friendly, eager faces, older now; the war stories, remembered, but not too much, with advantage; the barbecue and the country music and something new, the selfies, through which he gallantly grinned, delighted to be in the thick of things again. But then George Herbert Walker Bush has always been happiest in a swirl. Last weekend, during a three-day celebration at his presidential library in College Station, Texas, of the 25th anniversary of his 1989 inauguration, he was asked how he liked the flood of warmly generous words about his time at the pinnacle of American power. “Hard to believe,” the former president said in a voice hoarse with age. His eyebrows rose mischievously. “It’s ‘kinder and gentler’ all over the place.”

Approaching his 90th birthday, confined to a wheelchair by a form of Parkinson’s that prevents his brain from telling his legs want to do, the 41st president of the United States is in the midst of a unique autumnal chapter of life, at once savoring a favorable shift in the popular view of his own administration’s performance while, in classically Bushian fashion, looking forward. Temperamentally disinclined to introspection or even much retrospection, Bush long ago adopted the view that no setback, particularly in the turbulent world of politics, is permanent. “Time,” he often says, “marches on.”

It is a congenial season for the Bushes writ large. As the years pass from the tumult of the first decade of the century, George W. Bush seems less polarizing, and his new display of paintings of world leaders at his own library, in Dallas, offers the country—or at least a small part of it—the opportunity to consider him in a different, less glaring light. Bush 41’s grandson, George P. Bush, the son of Columba and Jeb, is running a textbook campaign for land commissioner in Texas. (He won the GOP primary in March with 73 percent of the vote.) And most intriguing of all is whether George P.’s dad, Jeb, will seek the presidency in 2016, possibly setting up yet another Bush-Clinton race in what’s become the American version of the Wars of the Roses.

In an interview with Fox News’s Shannon Bream that closed the festivities in College Station, Jeb Bush spoke very much in terms his father appreciated. “We need … candidates that are organized around winning the election, not making points,” Jeb said. “Campaigns ought to be about listening and learning and getting better. I do think we’ve lost our way.” Bush 41 very much hopes Jeb will run; Barbara Bush has said on several occasions that she suspects Americans are tired of Bushes even as she asserts that Jeb would be the best imaginable president. In College Station Jeb said that he would decide on a bid by year’s end. “Can one do it joyfully?” he asked rhetorically.

It is the kind of question that his father answered in the affirmative over three decades in public life, from the 1964 U.S. Senate race in Texas through the grim 1992 re-election bid. Often seen as a reluctant campaigner, George H.W. Bush actually adored politics and privately believes he was better at the game that people generally think. Did he enjoy pitching horseshoes with foreign leaders than shaking hands in Iowa? A bit, perhaps—but he knew that the latter made the former possible, and that without the demands of the campaign trail there would have been no cold-war diplomacy.

What, I asked the former president recently, does the conventional wisdom about you get wrong? “I’m not sure I know anymore,” Bush replied. “The common wisdom when Nixon was around and right after was that I wasn’t tough enough, you know, wasn’t strong enough, maybe you want to say mean enough. I don’t know how widespread that was … but publicly it may have been that, may still be for all I know. It’s hard to tell now, but I think there’s been a certain revisionism. It seems to blend into ‘Thank you for your public service,’ not ‘Hey, why’d you do this or that on taxes, or right wing or non-right wing.’ I’m surprised people remember because I feel like I’ve gone away, out of the game, all that kind of stuff. I haven’t been particularly interested in the legacy thing, except hoping that historians get it right, which I think they will.” He knows, too, that as the shadows lengthen for him, his family’s story in the arena is not over. And for the aging Bush, that sure and certain knowledge makes the twilight sweet.

TIME movies

The God of Noah: Great, but Not Always Good

NOAH
Niko Tavernise—Paramount

A movie that reminds us of the difficult, often perplexing nature of the Bible

“And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.”
— The Book of Genesis

As any even remotely careful reader knows, the Bible is a hard book, one that tends to raise as many questions as it answers. The God of the Hebrew Scriptures can be as capricious in his way as any of the gods of the ancient world; later, the God of the New Testament, in offering a means of salvation, does so only through the brutally violent execution of his own son. To engage with the biblical, then, is to engage with texts that are not historical in the ordinary sense of the term. Largely written to convince and convert, the Bible is a special kind of literary country. As the author of the Gospel of John said of his own work, “These things are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” Understanding the stories of Scripture requires what British poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge once called a “willing suspension of disbelief” — a suspension that in turn creates what Coleridge thought of as “poetic faith.”

I thought of Coleridge this weekend as I watched the new No. 1 movie in America, Noah, starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson. The movie has been predictably reviewed both as a dramatic enterprise (as a kind of latter-day Cecil B. DeMille film with CGI effects) and as a 21st century environmental fable (the world was destroyed by the “Creator” because of strip-mining, clear-cutting and gluttony). There have been point-by-point fact-checks between the film and the relevant chapters of Genesis. And there have been the expected criticisms from some religious groups about the movie’s preference for action sequences over theological reflection.

To me, the movie is a useful reminder of the difficult, often perplexing nature of the Bible itself. The Noah story is strange to us; the Flood in Genesis is one of the reasons I dislike the childhood mealtime blessing, “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food.” Yes, God is great, but he is not always good, for, in the Noah example, are we to really believe that everyone on earth except Noah’s family had to die? In terms of the narrative, God seems overly harsh, which even he may have realized, for by the time of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus, he would at least spare the inhabitants of the world that he chose to bring into being from a sudden death by drowning.

The Noah story is not unique in ancient literature. From the Sumerian creation story to The Epic of Gilgamesh, flood myths were common in Near Eastern culture and cosmology. Given the arbitrary, violent and chaotic nature of life in premodern times, the emergence of folk tales that ascribed supernatural significance to natural disasters is totally understandable. Here’s the thing, though: life in our own age is also arbitrary, violent and chaotic. Most of us dislike acknowledging that things lie outside our control; the whole story of the postscientific revolution, post-Enlightenment world has been the steady acceptance of the expectation that the unknown is knowable and the unmanageable manageable.

The Noah story is a rebuke to such certitude. The Flood and the arbitrary nature of a divine mandate to begin the world over again through mass drownings are of a piece with the tragic failings of a fallen world — the violent takeover of nation by nation, the disappearance of a huge airliner, the death of an innocent. The point of the Noah tale is that at any moment, forces beyond our control will upend everything we think we know about life. If there is a philosophical core to the new Noah movie, I think it can be found in a single line of dialogue from Crowe’s biblical patriarch, who, realizing the duty that has fallen on him, says, “The storm cannot be stopped, but it can be survived.”

In a way, that tragic acceptance of reality imbued with a sense of ultimate hope is an essential element of monotheistic theology. For those who choose the consolations of faith — and as the Noah story shows, faith surely comes with challenges — the tragic is ultimately leavened by hope. After the rain comes the rainbow; after the Cross the Crown. Part of us wants to cry out, wanting to know why the rain, why the Cross, and that crying out — the why with the hand uplifted to the heavens — is as inescapable an element of life as rain, and as death. Noah survived; all the rest of us can hope is that perhaps, in the fullness of time, we shall too.

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