The heart of Ge­orge H.W. Bush

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY BILL CLIN­TON

On Jan. 20, 1993, I en­tered the Oval Of­fice for the first time as pres­i­dent. As is the tra­di­tion, wait­ing for me was a note from my pre­de­ces­sor, Ge­orge Her­bert Walker Bush. It read: Dear Bill, When I walked into this of­fice just now I felt the same sense of won­der and re­spect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.

I wish you great hap­pi­ness here. I never felt the lone­li­ness some Pres­i­dents have de­scribed.

There will be very tough times, made even more dif­fi­cult by crit­i­cism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give ad­vice; but just don’t let the crit­ics dis­cour­age you or push you off course.

You will be our Pres­i­dent when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your fam­ily well.

Your suc­cess now is our coun­try’s suc­cess. I am root­ing hard for you.

Good Luck — Ge­orge

No words of mine or oth­ers can bet­ter re­veal the heart of who he was than those he wrote him­self. He was an hon­or­able, gra­cious and de­cent man who be­lieved in the United States, our Con­sti­tu­tion, our in­sti­tu­tions and our shared fu­ture. And he be­lieved in his duty to de­fend and strengthen them, in vic­tory and de­feat. He also had a nat­u­ral hu­man­ity, al­ways hop­ing with all his heart that oth­ers’ jour­neys would in­clude some of the joy that his fam­ily, his ser­vice and his ad­ven­tures gave him.

His friend­ship has been one of the great gifts of my life. From In­done­sia to Houston, from the Ka­t­rina-rav­aged Gulf Coast to Ken­neb­unkport, Maine — where just a few months ago we shared our last visit, as he was sur­rounded by his fam­ily but clearly missing Bar­bara — I cher­ished ev­ery op­por­tu­nity I had to learn and laugh with him. I just loved him.

Many peo­ple were sur­prised at our re­la­tion­ship, con­sid­er­ing we were once po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­saries. De­spite our con­sid­er­able dif­fer­ences, I had ad­mired many of his ac­com­plish­ments as pres­i­dent, es­pe­cially his for­eign pol­icy de­ci­sions in man­ag­ing Amer­ica’s re­sponse to the end of the Cold War and his will­ing­ness to work with gov­er­nors of both par­ties to es­tab­lish na­tional ed­u­ca­tion goals. Even more im­por­tant, though he could be tough in a po­lit­i­cal fight, he was in it for the right rea­sons: Peo­ple al­ways came be­fore pol­i­tics, pa­tri­o­tism be­fore par­ti­san­ship. To the end, we knew we would never agree on ev­ery­thing, and we agreed that was okay. Hon­est de­bate strength­ens democ­racy.

While we main­tained a re­spect­ful, friendly re­la­tion­ship through­out my pres­i­dency, it was only when Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush asked us to jointly spear­head Amer­i­can re­lief ef­forts in the wake of the In­dian Ocean tsunami of 2004 and again af­ter Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina in 2005 that we got to re­ally know each other. When we met with chil­dren who lost their par­ents in the tsunami, he was moved al­most to tears when they gave us draw­ings they’d made to cap­ture their pain and slow re­cov­ery in grief coun­sel­ing. When we were asked to speak to­gether at Tu­lane’s grad­u­a­tion in 2006, I saw his gen­uine feel­ing for the stu­dents, many of whom had suf­fered in the flood­ing of New Or­leans, and oth­ers who had shown hero­ism and love in car­ing for their neigh­bors. “Each of you here has in­spired me,” he told them. “When I look at our world, the good I see far out­weighs the bad, which maybe ex­plains why I am a real op­ti­mist about the fu­ture that you all will be fac­ing.”

Growing old did not rob him of his op­ti­mism or his love of com­pe­ti­tion and ad­ven­ture. In his book of letters, there’s a won­der­ful one to his fam­ily about get­ting older, in which he crows about driv­ing his speed­boat off the Maine coast. “Still want to com­pete. I still drive Fidelity II fast — very fast. My best so far — 63 mph in a slight chop with one [Se­cret Ser­vice] agent on board.” I took more than one ride in that boat with him over the years. It was fun but not an ex­pe­ri­ence for the faint of heart. It was the same driv­ing spirit, cou­pled with heart­felt pa­tri­o­tism, which led him to vol­un­teer for the Navy on his 18th birth­day in­stead of at­tend­ing Yale, be­com­ing one of the youngest Amer­i­can pi­lots to get his wings. Even when he was later shot out of the sky, the sole survivor of his close-knit crew, he never feared to go up again — fa­mously learn­ing to sky­dive at 75.

Af­ter the war, he took a leap of faith by stak­ing his and his fam­ily’s fu­ture in the Texas oil busi­ness and even­tu­ally got into pol­i­tics. Fifty years ago this spring, as a con­gress­man rep­re­sent­ing Houston, he voted for the Fair Hous­ing Act of 1968, go­ing against his nearly per­fect record of con­ser­va­tive votes in Wash­ing­ton. When he re­turned to Houston, he held a town hall to ex­plain his vote to a hos­tile crowd who thought he’d lost his mind. He be­lieved that he could con­vince them it was the right thing to do, as long as they would hear him out. That evening, at least, he was right. When he was fin­ished talk­ing he got a stand­ing ova­tion.

Given what pol­i­tics looks like in Amer­ica and around the world to­day, it’s easy to sigh and say Ge­orge H.W. Bush be­longed to an era that is gone and never com­ing back — where our op­po­nents are not our en­e­mies, where we are open to dif­fer­ent ideas and chang­ing our minds, where facts mat­ter and where our de­vo­tion to our chil­dren’s fu­ture leads to hon­est com­pro­mise and shared progress. I know what he would say: “Non­sense. It’s your duty to get that Amer­ica back.”

We should all give thanks for Ge­orge H.W. Bush’s long, good life and honor it by search­ing, as he al­ways did, for the most Amer­i­can way for­ward. The writer was the 42nd pres­i­dent of the United States.


For­mer pres­i­dents Bill Clin­ton and Ge­orge H.W. Bush in Thai­land in 2005.


The Oval Of­fice note that Ge­orge H.W. Bush left for Bill Clin­ton.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.