On Nov. 30, the world learned that former U.S. President George H. W. Bush had died at the grand old age of 94. When the news broke that evening and throughout the next few days, I was where English teachers always are at that time of year: in the white-hot grading frenzy around final exams. So, I couldn’t watch the wall-to-wall news coverage.
Fortunately, my mother recorded both funeral services and several days’ worth of national reflections. I spent part of the Christmas holiday glued to the DVR. While many might struggle to think of a worse way to spend their vacation, for me, this was personal. Yes, I’m a sucker for the sweep and pageantry of historic events. But Bush was also the first president I ever voted for.
I turned 18 in 1990, so the next election for chief executive was in 1992. I was a sophomore in college, and when the president came through Georgia on an old-fashioned whistle-stop campaign, I drove an hour to stand at the edge of a huge crowd and hear him speak from the train for about 10 minutes. Incidentally, when his son spoke at Harding 18 years later, I again was far away at the back of the Benson Auditorium. So, I have been 500 feet from presidents exactly twice in my life.
Eulogists recited the well-known arc of the elder Bush’s story: the youngest Navy fighter pilot in World War II, shot down during a bombing mission. A Yale baseball player. An entrepreneur who made the risky move from his comfortable East Coast home to Odessa, Texas to seek his fortune. The nation remembered the failed Senate run, and his successive job promotions: U.S. Congress, chair of the Republican National Committee, ambassador to China, director of the CIA, and Vice President of the United States. Few who have reached the country’s highest office have been so qualified.
But even more than the job titles, the accomplishments of his term as president were consequential: signing the Americans with Disabilities Act, assembling a huge coalition to defeat Saddam Hussein’s aggression in Kuwait, witnessing the fall of the Berlin Wall and masterfully handling the end of the Cold War. Despite living for eight years in the shadow of Ronald Reagan — his larger-than-life predecessor — Bush saw his popularity soar at the end of the Iraq War. It took a bad economy and two opponents — Ross Perot and Bill Clinton — to defeat him.
As the country’s longest-lived ex-president so far, Bush spent his years out of the White House with remarkable class and humanity. He largely refrained from political back-seat-driving and even teamed with his former rival for a charitable tour that fostered an enduring bond. Bush and Clinton could get lost in conversation, and there’s a story that once during his son’s presidency, the three men were planning to meet for lunch when another of these friendly chats started. The famously punctual George W. sent a note, “Tell 41 and 42 that 43 is hungry.”
The Senior Bush was deeply religious and regretted not being more open about his faith in office. But he was not shy about being a proud father, a doting grandfather and being head-over-heals in love with Barbara for 73 years. When the former first lady died in Dallas last spring, few expected her husband to outlive her for long. A cartoon printed in the newspaper showed the two of them reunited in a kiss in front of the pearly gates. The caption said, “Read my lips.” A delightful way to turn around his most ridiculed catch-phrase.
Glowing tributes flowed from those who knew him. Biographer John Meacham called him “a 20th-century founding father.” Former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson praised his modesty when he said that “those who travel the high road of humility in Washington are not bothered by heavy traffic.” His minister recalled the former commander-in-chief once handing his own overcoat to a shivering church usher. One of his former rivals for president — the frail, 95-year-old Bob Dole — insisted on rising with difficulty from his wheelchair to salute the casket of a fellow veteran.
By his own admission, Bush was an awkward public speaker. And according to the Oak Ridge Boys — who performed at his funeral — his singing was lousy. The press only seemed to like him after he had been out of office for decades, but they also joined in the tributes. Even the former “Newsweek” writer who penned the infamous “Fighting the Wimp Factor” cover story in 1987 wrote an op-ed last month to apologize. Better late than never.
It is now fashionable to lionize George H. W. Bush as among the last of a rare breed of public servant. Some of us liked him before it was cool.