I first met George Bush on a fall day in 1970, as he toured Texas, campaigning for the U.S. Senate in his chartered DC-3. The lanky, youthful-looking Houston congressman struck me as open and friendly, moderate in manner and approach.
But when he spoke, I was struck by the contrast between his manner and his sharply conservative comments.
That contrast always seemed present as the man who grew up among the liberal Republicans of his New England youth rose to political power in the far more conservative GOP of his adopted Texas home.
He eagerly embraced the latter’s ideology, as a youthful critic of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, in his sometimes harsh 1988 presidential campaign and in picking abortion rights foes for the federal bench. But he always seemed vaguely uncomfortable doing what he felt he had to do to succeed politically. It may explain why he always seemed more at ease dealing with foreign policy.
One thing never changed: his inherent decency and graciousness, whether dealing with fellow Republicans who undercut his efforts to curb the budget deficit or a press that sometimes treated him unfairly by calling this genuine World War II hero a “wimp” or taking advantage of his good manners to suggest he was out of touch with technological advance.
As Americans mourn the 41st president, I’d rather recall this genuinely nice man’s personal attributes, rather than his occasional political missteps.
I remember the gracious host who made visitors feel welcome at his seaside Maine home, in the vice president’s hillside mansion and in the White House, who welcomed dozens of journalists and their families to his Kennebunkport estate each summer and to the same holiday parties with officials, lawmakers and family friends, instead of segregating them like other presidents and vice presidents.
When I was working on a major profile of him, he invited me and my wife Susan Page to dinner and theater, making sure we met an old friend starring in the show, “Chuck” Heston.
Like many others, I got one of those little notes he wrote to everyone from journalists to county chairmen to heads of state. It chided me for a tongue-in-cheek column in which I predicted his various offspring would emulate his son George and run Texas sports teams.
In the process, I omitted Mrs. Bush. “What about the silver fox?” he asked.
I got another after a 2014 column citing his receipt of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award and praising his good manners in going out of the way to welcome President Barack Obama to Houston at a time many fellow Republicans were showing him little respect. After saying the JFK Award “means a great deal to me,” he added, “Your nice comments were icing on the cake.”
Bush had a great, sometimes childish, sense of humor. In her memoirs, the former first lady recalled how she discovered some grandchildren had downloaded porno pictures using her computer. Several weeks later, she got a letter summoning her to a regional Federal Trade Commission office to discuss the matter.
She asked the former president to read the letter aloud but, when she noticed lots of smiles, “it came to me that my husband had composed this letter. I fell hook, line and sinker — again!”
Voters saw his somewhat goofy side when he denounced Al Gore as “ozone man...far out” in the 1992 campaign and, bemoaning his troubles, inexplicably exclaimed, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.”
But the term that best characterized him was loyalty; members of the Bush family often said they believed “loyalty is not a character flaw,” and they remembered those who stood by him — and those who did not.
They were especially grateful to those who remained by his side in 1992, even when it became evident he would probably lose.
Similarly, the man friends affectionately called “41” remained totally loyal to his presidential son, known as “43,” even when it was widely believed he disapproved of the latter’s decision to attack Iraq; after all, in his 1998 book with National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, Bush described the problems he would have faced had he tried to overthrow Saddam Hussein after the Persian Gulf War.
They closely resembled what transpired under his son.
The ultimate irony was that 43’s efforts to make up for 41’s perceived failures, both politically and in Iraq, only made the first President Bush look better.
History won’t likely rate him as a great president, though his management of the end of the Cold War and the Gulf War look even better today than when he left office. But no more decent, honorable and genuinely nice man ever occupied the presidency.