WASHINGTON — In the aftermath of his 1992 defeat to Bill Clinton, then-President George Bush complained bitterly in a letter to his brother Jonathan about how he had been portrayed in the campaign that ended his long career in politics.
“I guess what I hate the most is the charge by the liberals in the media that I never stood for anything,” Mr. Bush wrote, citing “education, home ownership, points of light, less regulation, less taxes, etc.”
Yet Mr. Bush’s passing reference to policy issues, which he put in parentheses, was quickly followed by a more convincing summation of what drew him to public office. “What I want to have people know I stood for were ‘Duty, Honor, Country,’ and, yes, as Dad taught us, ‘service.’”
The deaths this year of Mr. Bush and Senator John McCain have been described as the passing of an era, the demise of pragmatic Republicanism. But neither of the two onetime naval aviators was anchored in ideology, veering between moderation and conservatism depending on the political needs of the moment.
What has seemingly been lost with Mr. Bush’s burial Thursday in College Station, Tex., and Mr. McCain’s in Annapolis, Md., in September is what could be called the “Duty, Honor, Country” Party.
Service itself, not any sweeping agenda, was the aim of this class of officeholders. And accommodations on issues were often made (and as often regretted) in order to win or stay in office.
Born before the baby boom generation, these lawmakers were forged by the Great Depression, World War II and a Cold War consensus politics underpinned by the idea that there were far greater threats than the opposing party. They also came of age at a time when military service was common; wartime bonds and shared cultural touchstones often trumped partisan differences; and zeal was not required for elected office.
Mr. Bush was a naval aviator during World War II.CreditGeorge Bush Presidential Library and Museum, via Reuters
“That’s what the voters wanted at the time,” said David Boren, the former Oklahoma governor and senator who was first elected to office the same year as Mr. Bush: 1966. “They wanted moderate people who’d reach across the aisle and find the best solution.”
Of course, the driving force propelling these politicians was not only a high-minded ethos of public spiritedness: Ambition, ego and paternalism were also at work.
But while Mr. Bush was rooted in the Eastern elite and Mr. McCain hailed from a storied military family, this era of leaders was not all to the manner born. Former Senators Daniel K. Inouye and Bob Dole — the former a son of a Japanese immigrant and the latter a son of the Kansas plains, who first met in a military hospital after being wounded in World War II — were both archetypes of this period and were hardly imbued with noblesse oblige.
They were stewards of the country, and that was the point.
“They both believed that when you were elected to public office, your first responsibility was to solve the problems that come in your inbox,” Mark Salter, Mr. McCain’s longtime chief of staff, said of the senator and the 41st president, citing their principles but “lack of ideological rigidity.”
While both were committed internationalists, Mr. McCain more hawkish than Mr. Bush, the two demonstrated more flexibility on issues at home.
Mr. Bush first ran to the right as an unsuccessful Senate candidate in 1964, but regretted his pandering on race and returned to the center in his winning House bid two years later. And while he dismissed what he called “voodoo economics” as a presidential candidate in 1980, he eagerly signed on to supply-side economics as Ronald Reagan’s vice president — before raising taxes when he was president himself.
He also signed the Americans With Disabilities Act, which made life easier for millions but created a new regulatory regime.
Mr. McCain was elected to the House in 1982 as a self-declared Reagan conservative and largely remained in that mold until a brush with the savings and loan scandal in the late 1980s inspired him to become a champion of campaign finance reform. That crusade led him toward a greater willingness to confront his own party, and he ran to the left of George W. Bush in the 2000 primary before occupying a similar place on domestic issues during the younger Mr. Bush’s presidency.
But Mr. McCain softened his support for an immigration overhaul in the 2008 presidential primary and then ratcheted up his rhetoric on border security to survive a 2010 Senate primary. And like the elder Mr. Bush, he regretted some of the concessions he made in the service of politics, notably his refusal to condemn the flying of the Confederate flag over the South Carolina Capitol and his choice of Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, rather than his close friend Joseph I. Lieberman.
Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain would ultimately leave little doubt about their contempt for the interest-group politics that would come to dominate their party, even after bowing to it at times.
“They both had an understanding that politics was something that’s imperfect but the idea was that you do the best you can and the most important thing is that you govern and work things out,” said former Senator John C. Danforth, a Missouri Republican who served with Mr. McCain while Mr. Bush was vice president and president.
Mr. Danforth invoked the comity (and bonhomie) of this era by recalling that, immediately after Mr. Bush was inaugurated, he offered an impromptu nod toward his old colleague Dan Rostenkowski, the legendary former chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means.
“He was saying, ‘I was your friend in the House, I’m still your friend and we’re going to do stuff together,’” Mr. Danforth said.
Similarly, Mr. McCain entered the Senate in 1987 enjoying deep friendships that he had formed as Navy liaison to the chamber a decade earlier. His Democratic colleagues Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Gary Hart both participated in his funeral services this year.
But these are different times.
“We rolled up the Soviets and didn’t have World War III,” said Mike Murphy, a onetime adviser to Mr. McCain. “So without scary Russians, Sputnik and proxy wars, the big work was done and all the energy turned to domestic squabbles. The baby boom generation never had to land on Anzio Beach.”
Those domestic squabbles — over issues like abortion, gay rights and gun control — are not all incidental. And there is broader representation now than in a period dominated by white men.
“I wouldn’t turn back time,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who twice sought the presidency in the same era that the political careers of Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush took flight.
Mr. Jackson noted that there were no black senators and fewer than 20 African-Americans in the House in that era. “This is the best America has ever been, today,” he said.
Or as Kate Bolz, a social worker and state legislator from Nebraska put it, “Yes, there’s polarization, but we are starting to see more people of more diverse viewpoints speaking up, engaging and talking about things.”
The question is whether there will again be a generation of ambitious, if more diverse, politicians bonded by common purpose and the sense of duty that military and other forms of service can inspire. All the World War II veterans are gone from the Senate, and there is only a single Vietnam veteran left.
Some in the capital take hope in the swelling ranks in Congress of those who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, a bipartisan group that includes 16 new lawmakers and which may feel devotion to a more unified cause — and may be more willing to resist the temptations of today’s partisan wars.
These lawmakers are the ones who are the most likely to live by the credo of their forebears, said former Senator John Warner of Virginia, a veteran of World War II and Korea whose voice remains strong at nearly 92.
“The day we pull off civilian clothes and put on the uniform, they tattoo on our hearts three words: duty, honor, country,” said Mr. Warner.