It's an accident of timing that the funeral of George H. W. Bush occurred within days of the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. But it's no accident that Americans have marked the passing of the former President with an outpouring of respect and admiration typically reserved for war heroes. They remember his presidency, to be sure, but they recall in a deeper way his generation of Americans, a generation indelibly stamped by the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the war that followed.

The Japanese raid jolted Americans out of the isolationism that had characterized their country's foreign policy for two decades. It made them realize that when the world was at war, America could not remain on the sidelines. American security, and the future of democracy, required that they respond forcefully against aggression.

Like millions of that generation, Bush took Pearl Harbor as a summons to service. He entered the Navy in 1942 at the age of 18 and became an aviator. In 1944, he was shot down over the Pacific and lost colleagues in the crash, yet he swiftly returned to service, ultimately flying more than 50 combat missions and receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross, among other decorations.

Yet Bush, and that generation, wore their heroism lightly. Their attitude was that they had simply done what needed doing. They didn't make a great fuss over one another, and they didn't expect people to make a fuss over them.

Bush returned to civilian life but never forgot the lesson of the war for Americans: that no enemy can defeat this country when we pull together in a common effort, putting the broad national interest ahead of the narrow interests of individuals and parties.

He resumed his education, racing through Yale in two and a half years, and then followed the American dream to Texas. He was accompanied by his wife, Barbara, and their son George W.; five other children came in due course.

Bush entered politics in the 1960s as a Republican, in a state still dominated by Democrats. He won election to the House of Representatives but lost a race for Senate, all the while impressing those he encountered with his common sense and general competence. He advanced through appointive ranks of the Republican Party and, when the Republicans held the executive branch, the federal government. He lost the 1980 Republican nomination for president to Ronald Reagan, who chose Bush for his running mate. He served two terms as Vice President.

Bush won the presidency in 1988, on Reagan's continuing coattails. But he governed as his own man. The critical moment came in 1990, when record federal deficits were spooking investors and prompting demands that the hemorrhage be stanched. Bush struck a deal with congressional Democrats, trading tax increases for spending cuts.

It was a major accomplishment for the country, but it exacted a stiff personal price. The deal put the budget on track to balance by the end of the decade, but it jeopardized Bush's career. He was one of the last of the old-school Republicans who treated fiscal responsibility seriously; his White House tenure coincided with the takeover of the party by tax-cutting zealots who deemed balanced budgets something only suckers worried about.

Bush had opened his flank to them by stepping out of character at the 1988 Republican convention, where he vowed, "Read my lips: No new taxes." In 1990 he realized he would be pilloried for going back on his pledge. But it was the right thing to do, and he did it.

It cost him his presidency. Bush's successes in foreign policy -- in piloting the world to a soft landing after the breakup of the Soviet Union, in godfathering the reunification of Germany, in forging the North American Free Trade Agreement, in liberating Kuwait without entangling the United States irreversibly in the coils of Middle Eastern politics -- were as nothing to Republicans who could see only that he had consented to a tax increase. Challenged within the party for renomination, distracted by the third-party run of Ross Perot, Bush lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton.

The honors paid to Bush this week signaled a widespread appreciation of his fundamental decency, at a moment in our political history when decency has been sorely devalued. He reminds us of a time when public service was considered a noble calling.

He was the last President to have served in World War II, the last President from the "greatest generation" -- a "charter member," as his friend James Baker eulogized him Thursday. Yet he, like others of that generation, never claimed the mantle of greatness for himself. He did what needed doing, because that's what Americans of his generation did.

Pearl Harbor brought out the best in George Bush and set the pattern for his career. Perhaps his passing, in the week of the Pearl Harbor anniversary, can make us pause and ask ourselves if we're capable of similar unselfish service.

CNN's Ray Sanchez and Phil Gast contributed to this report.

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