FRANK BRUNI: George H.W. Bush's uncommon grace

Posted December 1, 2018 11:41 a.m. EST
Updated December 1, 2018 11:22 p.m. EST

Kinder. Gentler. Those were words that George H.W. Bush famously used in his inaugural speech, when he was sworn in as the 41st president of the United States. I say “famously” not because the verbiage was particularly visionary, but because it evolved, over the years, into a shorthand for his philosophy, for his character, for what the Republican Party needed to be and for what he wanted to make it.

The words fell into a passage of the speech that, in relation to the “American carnage” of the current president’s oratory, seems both quaint and exotic — and makes you yearn for an earlier time. “America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle,” Bush told the crowd arrayed in front of the Capitol on Jan. 20, 1989. “We as a people have such purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.”

Kinder. Gentler. How often those of us who write about politics subsequently riffed off those adjectives — so often that editors would strike them from our copy, telling us that they had been utterly played out, that they had tumbled from the realm of the descriptive into the dustbin of the clichéd. They were our ignoble way to mock the dissonance between his and other Republicans’ gooey rhetorical flourishes and their actual actions. They were our yardstick for measuring the party’s shortfall. They were our rod for flogging it.

But in reality and in retrospect, Bush was a kinder and gentler breed of leader. He believed in courtesy, as any lawmaker who dealt with him and any journalist who repeatedly crossed paths with him can attest. He believed in manners, not merely as an outgrowth of his patrician background and not principally in a fussy way, but because he saw them as an expression of respect. To read his voluminous letters is to encounter a man who cared deeply about that — about precedent, propriety, tradition. And, yes, about kindness.

There was the letter that he left for Bill Clinton, who beat him in the 1992 presidential election and would soon be replacing him at the Resolute Desk. It was a note, really, handwritten on White House stationery and dated Jan. 20, 1993, the day of Clinton’s inauguration.

“When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago,” it said. “I know you will feel that, too.”

“I’m not a very good one to give advice,” it later continued, capturing a strain of humility, so rare among presidents, that Bush genuinely possessed. “Don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course,” he wrote, and ended by saying, “Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.” I don’t think there’s any doubt that he was.

Of course he could be partisan, but not like today’s hellcats. In fact, an act of political compromise — a 1990 deficit-reduction bill that raised taxes, in defiance of a 1988 campaign pledge — had some hand in his failure to win a second term.

Of course he could be ruthless. He employed one of the nastiest tacticians in politics, Lee Atwater. And that 1988 campaign, against Michael Dukakis, sired the despicably racist Willie Horton ad.

But much more remarkable — and much more sustained — was his thoughtfulness.

I saw and experienced it many times myself when I covered the 2000 presidential campaign. I remember sitting with him and Barbara Bush in the living room of their summer compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. It was shortly before the Republican National Convention, at which George W. Bush would receive his formal nomination as the party’s candidate, and as his parents mused about the odd turns of history, Barbara Bush kept making little digs about the scandals of Clinton, whose presidency was winding down.

Stop it, her husband kept saying. No, no, no. He told her that he’d eject her from the interview, and while that threat was mostly playful, it did reflect the kinds of relationships that he preferred. Cordial. Nurturing. And, yes, gentle.

He and Clinton would go on to become such good friends that Barbara later changed her tune, speaking of how Clinton was almost a surrogate son of the president who preceded him, the one he vanquished.

Look anew at that extraordinary photograph from Barbara Bush’s funeral last April — the one from which President Donald Trump was conspicuously missing, because he knew he wasn’t wanted at the ceremony and skipped it. In Bush’s body language and in the body language of the people around him, you can see the affection that he had for his successors and the affection that they had for him. Four former or current first ladies — Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Michelle Obama and Melania Trump — are there. So are four former presidents: Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and, of course, George H.W. Bush, who is in the foreground and the center.

He’s not just the oldest in the crowd. He’d not just the only one in a wheelchair. He’s the group’s center of gravity. Also its point of light, if you will. He’s mustering a smile even though he’s living through perhaps the saddest passage of his fading days, and I can theorize why. He’s reminded, in that tableau, of the continuum of American history and the honor of belonging to it. He’s reveling in a shared set of values that transcend the rancor of this era. He’s surrounded, in that moment, by kindness, a diminishing currency that mattered as much to him as any other.

Another of his letters, one that he sent to one of his granddaughters, Jenna Hager Bush, two decades ago:

“I believe I was right when I said, as president, there can be no definition of a successful life that does not include service to others,” he wrote. “So I do that now, and I gain happiness. I do not seek a Pulitzer Prize. I do not want press attention. I don’t crave sitting at the head table or winning one of the many coveted awards offered by the many organizations across the land. I have found happiness. I no longer pursue it, for it is mine.”

That softness and soulfulness at times earned him derision, as when Newsweek published a cover story about his 1988 presidential campaign that was titled “Bush Battles the Wimp Factor.” For decades afterward, everyone in the Bush family seethed about it.

I look back now and wonder if it was really an unintended compliment. We could use more wimps like him.

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