He was from another time. A time when war heroes became president, when men wrote long, emotional letters and when Americans who didn’t necessarily like the president didn’t necessarily hate the president.
Those times are gone, now seeming eons ago. In its stead, we have … well, you know what we have.
To varying extents, many of us have contributed to it. And to an all-encompassing extent, we’re all the worse for it.
The Friday night death of George H.W. Bush at age 94 marks a dividing line in U.S. history. When Bill Clinton, a man 22 years his junior, defeated Bush in 1992, I wrote that the nation had turned the keys over to a new generation. Now, more than another generation later, it’s clear that Bush will remain our final president from the generation that earned its title as the greatest.
Clinton, the first president born after World War II, avoided the draft during Vietnam, something many men of his generation did. Bush served heroically in World War II, something many men of his generation did.
I don’t recall anybody really hating Bush the way every president since him — including his son — has had people hate him. Maybe that says something about the times. Maybe it says something about the elder Bush, a gentleman with the most extensive public service rèsumè of any president in my lifetime.
And what we know about his public life was backed by what we learned about his private life in a book compiled by him over 57 years. The 1999 volume is called “All The Best: My Life in Letters and Other Writings.” It’s a collection of letters to friends, family members and others. They are letters from a son, a dad, a suitor, a husband, a friend, a business partner and a president. In the preface Bush called them “serious letters, nutty letters, caring and rejoicing letters.”
In a Sept. 3, 1944, letter to his parents, Bush, who enlisted on his 18th birthday in 1942 and became the Navy’s youngest aviator, detailed how his plane was shot down over the Pacific. “The cockpit was full of smoke and I was choking from it. I glanced at the wings and noticed that they were on fire,” he wrote.
In 1958, five years after daughter Robin, the Bushes’ second child, died of leukemia two months short of her fourth birthday, Bush wrote to his mother about the pain that wouldn’t go away. By then, the Bushes had four sons.
“There is about our house a need. … We need some starched crisp frocks to go with all our torn-kneed blue jeans and helmets. We need some soft blond hair to offset those crew cuts. … We need someone who’s afraid of frogs. We need someone to cry when I get mad, not argue. We need a little one who can kiss without leaving egg or jam or gum. We need a girl.
“We had one once. She’d fight and cry and play and make her way just like the rest. But there was about her a certain softness. She was patient — her hugs were just a little less wiggly.”
He concluded with this, “We can’t touch her, and yet we can feel her. We hope she’ll stay in our house for a long, long time.”
Daughter Dorothy was born a year after the letter was written. Robin, buried initially in Greenwich, Conn., was reinterred in 2000 at her father’s presidential library at Texas A&M University, near where he will be buried and near where Barbara Bush was buried this spring.
The final letter in the book went to his children on Sept. 23, 1998. Bush, then 74, said the topic was “a man who is very happily growing old.”
“This letter is about aging,” he wrote. “Not about the President’s Conference on Aging and how we should play lawn bowling, get discounts at the movies, turn into skin-conscious sunblockers, take Metamucil and grow old gracefully.”
He wrote about the things that nag an aging man, even an aging former president with all the advantages a man that age could have.
“This year if I turn fast, I wobble,” he wrote.
“Memory? A definite problem now,” he told his kids, adding a passage about the “hearing thing.”
It was a long, loving, positive letter about “so much excitement ahead, so many grandkids to watch grow.”
“Who knows?” he wrote. “Maybe they’ll come out with a new drug that makes legs bend easier, joints hurt less, drives go farther, memory come roaring back and all fears about falling off fishing rocks go away.”
Those would be miracles, indeed, almost as big a miracle as again someday having a president — maybe even one eventually voted out of office — who is not necessarily hated by Americans who disagree with him or her.
Bush was of his generation, for better and sometimes for worse. It is beyond unfortunate that as an old man he drew criticism when he touched women inappropriately as part of an inappropriate attempt at inappropriate humor. It was misguided behavior from a man from another generation and who was facing health problems.
As one who respected Bush, it pains me to have to mention that in the wake of his death. Some will criticize me for it. And others would have criticized me if I had left it out. I understand.
Our country is better for the service to it by George Herbert Walker Bush. You might not always have liked what he did, but it was hard to carp about how he did it.
David Priess, a former top CIA officer, said it well in a tweet about a photo taken at Barbara Bush’s funeral. The picture included Presidents George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.
“Each president in this photo did things I disagreed with politically. Quite a lot, in fact, for most of them,” he told us. “And yet I never doubted that every single one of them acted based on core values, including love of country — not, primarily, love of self.”
The oldest president in that photo helped write the book on that.