No. 41, the real ‘man in full’
“Helen,” I said. “Let the president get to it his way. You’ll get your questions.”
The president started again, she interrupted again, and David Brinkley spoke up from the end of the table. “Helen, this isn’t a press conference, let the president speak.”
“But he promised to talk about the Middle East,” she said. “And I will, Helen, but in my time.” He started a third time, with the same result, and the president spoke up again, this time with a little heat. “Helen,” he said, “I’ve waited a long time to say this. Shut up!”
He made a flirtatious remark to Suzanne Fields, seated at his side, earning a brief but icy look from Mrs. Bush, and the dinner proceeded to a cordial conclusion. (The Middle East turned out to be dark and stormy, as it always is.)
Mr. Bush had an earthy side that was always polite but occasionally unexpected. Many presidents do, by all accounts, which is often part of their charm. But it’s sometimes cringe-making. No. 41 knew the difference and knew not to cross the line of his own drawing.
He could be the starchy Episcopalian, but I once sat next to him at a small Congregational service near his home in Kennebunkport, and when he sang with Baptist fervor all four verses of John Newton’s great hymn, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,” he knew all the words without looking once at the book.
His faith, which Anglicans usually do not talk about with the ease of evangelicals, was crucial to comfort in his final years. He believed in a life after this one, and looked forward with considerable relish to seeing his wife and daughter Robin, who died age 3. He asked practical questions about what he could expect. “There are a lot of people I want to see,” he said, “but how do you find them? It’s not like there will be a big telephone book.” If there is, I’m confident his curiosity will lead him to it. Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.