Ge­orge H.W. Bush led an Amer­i­can life, a life of pur­pose

The Star Democrat - - OPINION - DAVID SHRIBMAN David M. Shribman is ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of the Post-Gazette (dshrib­[email protected], 412-2631890). Fol­low him on Twit­ter at Shrib­manPG. DIS­TRIB­UTED BY AN­DREWS MCMEEL SYN­DI­CA­TION

So en­deth one of the great Amer­i­can lives.

It wasn’t the Ragged Dick up­from-poverty Amer­i­can life of a Ho­ra­tio Al­ger boot­black; Ge­orge H.W. Bush was born to priv­i­lege and prof­ited from pri­mo­gen­i­ture. It wasn’t the Mr.-SmithGoes-to-Wash­ing­ton Amer­i­can life of a James Ste­wart in­genue; he was the son of a sen­a­tor (and then the father of a pres­i­dent). It wasn’t the rus­ti­cated elo­quence of an An­drew Jack­son of the Carolina Wax­haws or an Abra- ham Lin­coln of the In­di­ana farm­lands; the 41st pres­i­dent was the prod­uct of Phillips Academy An­dover and of the Cole Porter an­thems of Yale, and yet he man­gled the English lan­guage in a goofy, some­times in­com­pre­hen­si­ble way. And it wasn’t a pa­rade of tri­umphs cel­e­brated by a na­tion that loves a win­ner: He lost a bru­tal 1970 Se­nate race, a try­ing 1980 pres­i­den­tial-nom­i­na­tion cam­paign and an ex­cru­ci­at­ing 1992 bat­tle for re-elec­tion as pres­i­dent. He also wit­nessed his son, for­mer Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, get de­feated in the 2016 GOP pri­maries against Don­ald Trump.

But Bush lived a great Amer­i­can life, one of pur­pose (a word of un­usual promi­nence in his speeches and let­ters) and of ser­vice (the leit­mo­tif of his 94 years). He was the quintessen­tial ci­ti­zen of the Amer­i­can 20th cen­tury, his life shaped by World War II, the Cold War, Water­gate, the en­ergy in­dus­try, the fall of com­mu­nism, the resur­gence of con­ser­vatism and the emer­gence of a Repub­li­can Solid South. As he aged, with a grace that de­fied the tim­bre of the times, he lived to see many of the buoys of his life, and of Amer­i­can life — global en­gage­ment, col­lab­o­ra­tion in multi­na­tional al­liances, govern­ment thrift — ques­tioned or re­pu­di­ated.

He was courtly yet gave no quar­ter to ri­vals. (“What one said or did to rise to ul­ti­mate au­thor­ity mat­tered less to Bush,” his bi­og­ra­pher, Jon Meacham wrote, “than whether one was prin­ci­pled and self­less once one was in com­mand.”) He was clin­i­cal in his analy­ses yet mushy in his re­la­tion­ships. (Through­out his life he em­ployed the line his daugh­ter, who died at age 3 of leukemia, sowed in the fam­ily lex­i­con and es­tab­lished as a fam­ily tal­is­man: “I love you more than tongue can tell.”)

He con­ducted range wars with his ri­vals but rec­on­ciled with all of them. His 1988 GOP nom­i­na­tion bat­tle against Sen. Bob Dole was one of the bit­ter po­lit­i­cal fights of the age. In their 90s, the two men spoke warmly of each other and reg­u­larly ex­changed birth­day wishes. He re­sented the pub­lic ap­peal and in­tel­li­gence of his 1992 op­po­nent, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clin­ton (“He’s bet­ter at facts­fig­ures than I am,” he told the speech­writer Peggy Noo­nan. “I’m bet­ter at life”). He cul­ti­vated a post-pres­i­den­tial re­la­tion­ship with Clin­ton matched only by John Adams and the man who de­feated him for re-elec­tion in 1800, Thomas Jef­fer­son.

But per­haps the most af­fect­ing rec­on­cil­i­a­tion — one no cor­re­spon­dent who cov­ered Bush ever for­got — came with

Wash­ing­ton Post re­porter Ann Devroy. For months, Devroy tor­mented the pres­i­dent with a daily bar­rage of leaks and rev­e­la­tions that in­fu­ri­ated Bush. Then Devroy was stricken with the can­cer that even­tu­ally would claim her life. To the M.D. An­der­son can­cer com­plex came a let­ter from Bush: “I want you to win this bat­tle. I want the same tough­ness that an­gered me and frus­trated me to a fare-thee-well at times to see you through your fight.”

Bush may not have changed his prin­ci­ples, but he did change his mind. As a young con­gress­man, he op­posed civil-rights leg­is­la­tion but four years later in­fu­ri­ated his Texas con­stituents by sup­port­ing a fair-hous­ing bill. He aban­doned his New Or­leans GOP con­ven­tion vow — “No new taxes! — to reach the 1990 bud­get agree­ment that cut the deficit, but in em­pow­er­ing GOP in­sur­gents led by Rep. Newt Gin­grich, set in mo­tion a fate­ful Repub­li­can re­bel­lion that would end the reign of the old guard of the party that Bush per­son­i­fied.

Ge­orge H.W. Bush was the cen­tral fig­ure in a dy­nasty ac­count­ing for four years in the House, 10 in the Se­nate, 16 as gover­nor, a dozen as pres­i­dent and five cam­paigns on the na­tional po­lit­i­cal stage — a fam­ily record ar­guably sur­pass­ing both the Adamses and the Kennedys.

Bush was far more vig­or­ous than the pres­i­dent who iden­ti­fied with Amer­i­can vigor (Kennedy), which is why his de­cline in his 10th decade was so poignant. Re­peat­edly hos­pi­tal­ized, Bush neared death on sev­eral oc­ca­sions. Penny Cir­cle, Ger­ald Ford’s long­time aide, urged Jean Becker, Bush’s, to leave her post be­fore the pres­i­dent’s demise. The end, she coun­seled, would be too much to bear. But try as she might, Becker could not aban­don Bush. It was she who alerted the world of Bush’s death, and she who planned the na­tional farewell that is un­fold­ing now.

Bush’s son, Ge­orge W. Bush, was tasked with giv­ing the cen­ter­piece fu­neral tribute. As long ago as Au­gust, he be­gan pre­par­ing his re­marks, and be­seeched the other eu­lo­gists to sub­mit their re­marks to him so as to avoid repet­i­tive themes. When the re­quest was trans­mit­ted to for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Brian Mul­roney of Canada, a long­time boon com­pan­ion of Bush, the an­swer came back swiftly: “Done.”

In an­nounc­ing his in­ten­tion to run for pres­i­dent in 1987, thenVice Pres­i­dent Bush spoke of “pros­per­ity with a pur­pose.” It was eco­nomic dis­tress that de­nied him a sec­ond term. In that same speech, given amid red, white and blue bunt­ing in an oth­er­wise ster­ile Hous­ton ho­tel, he de­liv­ered per­haps the most ac­cu­rate state­ment of self­aware­ness in Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal his­tory: “I am not a mys­tic, and I do not yearn to lead a cru­sade. My am­bi­tions are per­haps less dra­matic, but they are not less pro­found.”

And yet the most pro­found ut­ter­ings of the Bush heart came not in set-piece speeches and cer­tainly not in fum­bling de­bate set­tings. They came in let­ters, thou­sands of them, typed him­self with oc­ca­sional mis­spellings. In his last hours as pres­i­dent, Bush wrote a friend from the Res­o­lute desk in the Oval Of­fice:

“I feel the same sense of won­der and majesty about this of­fice to­day as I did when I first walked in here. I’ve tried to serve here with no taint or dis­honor; no con­flict of in­ter­est; noth­ing to sully this beau­ti­ful place and this job.”

Would that every pres­i­dent — would that every Amer­i­can — could write such a let­ter.

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