A Pres­i­dent Who Could Laugh at Him­self

The Signal - - Opinion - Steven and Cokie ROBERTS Steve and Cokie Roberts’ com­men­tary is dis­trib­uted by An­drews McMeel Syn­di­ca­tion.

Afriend re­cently said, “I can­not read an­other col­umn com­par­ing Ge­orge Bush to Don­ald Trump.” We took that ad­vice, and are sim­ply re­mem­ber­ing the more ad­mirable qual­i­ties of the 41st pres­i­dent, who died last week at age 94. Any com­par­i­son to the 45th pres­i­dent is purely ac­ci­den­tal.

Start with one of Ge­orge Her­bert Walker Bush’s most en­dear­ing traits: the abil­ity to laugh at him­self. Dur­ing his four years as pres­i­dent, he was reg­u­larly lam­pooned by co­me­dian Dana Car­vey on “Satur­day Night Live,” and the por­trait was not al­ways flat­ter­ing.

“In Car­vey’s ren­der­ing,” wrote Travis M. An­drews in The Wash­ing­ton Post, “Bush was a lit­tle more weird, a lit­tle more out of con­trol with his hands, a lit­tle more prone to in­ex­pli­ca­ble, stac­cato phrase­ol­ogy.”

In one mem­o­rable episode, Car­vey-as-Bush was re­count­ing the con­tri­bu­tions made by other na­tions to the mil­i­tary ac­tion that ex­pelled Iraqi troops from Kuwait. “From Mex­ico, salsa,” boasted Car­vey. “Chunky style. Makes you hun­gry.”

Yet Bush ap­peared on “SNL,” tap­ing a seg­ment in which he chided Car­vey for his por­trayal. “Ge­orge Bush here,” said the pres­i­dent. “I’m watch­ing you do your im­pres­sion of me, and I gotta say, it’s noth­ing like me. Bears no re­sem­blance. It’s bad. It’s bad.”

The “it’s bad” line was a fa­vorite trope of Car­vey-as-Bush — as ev­ery lis­tener well knew.

In fact, after Bush’s sting­ing de­feat at the hands of Bill Clin­ton in 1992, the lame duck pres­i­dent in­vited Car­vey to a Christ­mas party for his White House staff. The an­nouncer in­toned to the large crowd, “The Pres­i­dent of the United States,” and in walked Car­vey to thun­der­ous ap­plause.

The comic joked that he had spent the pre­vi­ous night in the Lin­coln bed­room, and had used his im­pres­sion of the pres­i­dent to call the Se­cret Ser­vice and say, “Feel like go­ing jog­ging tonight. In the nude. Fully un­clothed.”

The au­di­ence rocked with laugh­ter, in­clud­ing the pres­i­dent, who had slipped into the rear of the room. When Bush him­self took the podium he said, “Dana has given me a lot of laughs, and the fact that we can laugh at each other is a very fun­da­men­tal thing.”

“SNL” re­paid the tribute after Bush’s death, as cast mem­ber Colin Jost in­tro­duced a mon­tage of Car­vey-as-Bush skits by de­scrib­ing the late pres­i­dent as “a warm and gra­cious man who al­ways un­der­stood the power in be­ing able to laugh at your­self.”

That un­der­stand­ing had a larger mean­ing. It said some­thing pro­found about Bush’s char­ac­ter, his im­pulse to think of oth­ers and not just him­self, to place em­pa­thy be­fore ego. And that virtue showed it­self in his life­long habit of writ­ing notes to peo­ple ex­press­ing grief and grat­i­tude, joy and sor­row.

Cokie trea­sures two such mis­sives. One from 2013 ex­presses con­do­lences at the death of her mother, Lindy Boggs. “Bar­bara and I are check­ing in to let you know we’re think­ing of you,” he wrote. “Your Mom was a great Amer­i­can and a great lady, and we mourn her pass­ing.”

By then, Bush’s mal­adies had de­prived him of the abil­ity to write by hand, his pre­ferred form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, so the let­ter was typed. But the sig­na­ture was his: “G. Bush.”

The pres­i­dent was well-known for his love of col­or­ful socks, and for Christ­mas in 2015, Cokie sent him a pair from the Na­tional Ar­chives store em­bla­zoned with the fa­mous World War II poster, “Un­cle Sam Needs You.” He wrote back a few days into the New Year: “I loved the Un­cle Sam socks ... How thought­ful of you. Life is good for the Bushes and I hope the same is true for you and yours.”

Life was in­deed good for the Bushes. Ge­orge and his wife, Bar­bara, were mar­ried for 73 years be­fore her death last April — by far the long­est mar­riage of any Amer­i­can pres­i­dent — and it’s no ac­ci­dent that he re­ferred to her and his fam­ily in both of his notes. They were an in­te­gral part of his iden­tity, as Cokie learned when she in­ter­viewed the former pres­i­dent some years after he left of­fice.

When she said first ladies are of­ten “un­sung he­roes,” Bush 41 replied with enor­mous af­fec­tion about his wife, “She’s sung. And you know what the boys call her? The En­forcer. Even the pres­i­dent calls her that.”

Bar­bara up­braided him, he ad­mit­ted, for his in­fa­mous de­nun­ci­a­tion of broc­coli, but he added mis­chie­vously that his stance against the veg­etable had “lib­er­ated ev­ery 4-year-old.”

So yes, Ge­orge Her­bert Walker Bush could laugh at him­self. And no, we didn’t write an anti-Trump col­umn. Or did we?

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