By Ellen McGirt
Updated: December 3, 2018 2:34 PM ET

This week we mark the passing of George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st U.S. president, and the middle figure in a political dynasty that has had an outsized impact on history.

To put it mildly, right?

While tributes and remembrances continue to pour in, others are raising legitimate questions about the former president’s record. For people intent on policing “civility”, it can feel ill-timed.

But these difficult conversations are not only possible, they are also necessary. It serves the public to understand the legacy of a public servant.

You can be both a folksy patrician and a vicious political operator—and he was.

I won’t veer into political analysis. But I do feel the need to defend the practice of historical review, to create a cultural habit of reckoning that has long eluded the American character.

What do leaders do to keep and maintain power? And what price does the public pay? What can we learn from this history?

Living through a time doesn’t equate to understanding it; what we remember instead, is the myth-making and the marketing, the William “Willie” Hortons and drug-dealing rapists that Mexico “sends our way.”

But none of this is new. The history of 10 seconds ago is built on an invisible pedestal of actions that happened 10 years, 10 decades ago, or more.

It’s why a quiet meeting that happened today in North Carolina is important to note.

Today, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees decided how they wanted to manage the legacy of Silent Sam, the Confederate statue torn down four months ago by protestors who felt that the presence of the monument as a symbol of white supremacy was a continuing affront.

“Last night, a group of students and community organizers did what few were prepared to do: they corrected a moral and historical wrong that needed to be righted if we were ever to move forward as a University. Last night, they tore down Silent Sam. They were right to do so,” the UNC undergraduate leadership group said in a statement.

The statue was erected in the 1920s as part of the second wave of Confederate monuments designed to affirm the Jim Crow caste system and cement the ideals of white supremacy. It is no surprise, then, that at the time Silent Sam arrived, the country’s oldest public university was also facing increasing resistance to its status as a whites-only campus.

It would take decades before the first black students, brothers Ralph and LeRoy Frasier and John Brandon, were admitted.

The three enrolled in 1955 after filing a lawsuit against the UNC board and winning a federal court decision that overturned a 150-year-old segregation policy.

Today, however, the board decided to split the baby: They’re recommending Silent Sam be restored to campus, but in a new building dedicated to telling the university’s long and complicated history. (Which will come with a $5.3 million price tag.)

While it’s not what protestors wanted, history may offer a saving grace.

In a passionate opinion piece, UNC history professor James Leloudis describes the opportunity costs of not facing unvarnished truths in real time.

When the university first failed to integrate, he says, it also failed to calculate “the much larger cost of inaction: the violence and daily degradation inflicted on blacks and Native Americans, and the poverty, illness, and ignorance suffered by many whites as well in a state more concerned to maintain white supremacy than to invest in the health and well-being of its citizens.”

So, let your inner historian out to read, talk and think about the hard stuff. The examination of a public life or institution is an act of public service. May the truth set us all free.

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