Understanding ‘41,’ one letter at a time
When I heard the news that George H.W. Bush had died, I immediately flashed back on a trip to Houston last year. I had come to make a speech. It was a warm day, a cloudless sky, and the hotel suite was spacious and tidy. On the table I saw a thick tome called “All The Best, George Bush,” a collection of letters from the 41st president.
“Oh, right,” I thought. Houston. Bush. I flipped through the pages and grazed a few lines. Then I sat down near the window and put the book on my lap. And I read some more.
I had turned 30 when Bush ran for president in 1988. Wrapped up in my career, as many young people are, I didn’t spend a ton of time on politics. Bush was vice president to Ronald Reagan. I figured if he won, we would just go along the way we’ve been going.
I remembered his campaign against Michael Dukakis, a decidedly unexciting candidate. And when Bush famously said, “Read my lips: no new taxes.” I remembered that. And of course, once he got elected president, he raised taxes. I remembered that. Dana Carvey on “Saturday Night Live” did a wicked impression of him. I remembered that.
But as far as who Bush was, well, I had little idea. As I began to flip through his book, I was surprised.
‘I saw the plane strike the water'
The early pages were devoted to his letters from World War II, many to his parents. Bush had enlisted at 18, over his father’s wishes. He wrote letters about his training at various bases and his learning to fly. He wrote about his journey overseas, his fears, his strong patriotism. He wrote about getting shot down during a battle over the Pacific, an incident in which two of his crewmen died, how the plane filled with smoke and how he had to eject:
As I left the plane my head struck the tail. I now have a cut head and bruised eye but it is far from serious. After jumping, I must have pulled the ripcord too soon for when I was floating down, I looked up at the canopy and several of the panels were all ripped out. Just as I got floating down, I saw the plane strike the water.
There was also a letter he wrote to the parents of a fellow soldier, a friend of his, who had gone missing:
I wish I could tell you exactly what happened to Jim, but I do not know — nor does anyone, I’m afraid. He just never returned from a search flight. … It is entirely possible that at this very minute he is on some island. I know how hard it must be for you to keep your spirits up, but all of us must keep saying to ourselves that Jim is still alive. … Let’s just keep that ray of hope in our hearts and in our prayers, and perhaps our faith will be rewarded.
Jim was never found. I thought about how hard it must have been for Bush to write that letter, especially as a young soldier in his 20s. I thought about how Bush was the last president we had who served in World War II, and, in fact, the last president who had seen action in any war (including his son George W. Bush, who was famously stateside during the Vietnam War, and Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, who did no military service at all).
As the sun moved higher in the sky outside that hotel window, I realized I really didn’t know much about this president at all.
‘How lucky our children will be'
The book of letters continued through Bush’s courtship of his eventual wife, Barbara, and even had a love letter he sent to her when their engagement was announced in the paper:
I love you, precious, with all my heart and to know that you love me means my life. How often I have thought about the immeasurable joy that will be ours some day. How lucky our children will be to have a mother like you.
There were many more letters of his early political campaigns, his failures, his successes. And of course, his presidency. It was incredible to read the detail, the worry, the gravity, and most of all the self-reflection, the wondering if he was doing the right thing, in policy and in action.
When you think about politics today you wonder if anybody does any selfreflection. Or if anyone would take time away from their own egos and partyposturing to even write a letter.
I am not scrubbing clean the legacy of our 41st president. Bush did plenty of questionable things. He was an aggressive campaigner. And being the child of privilege, he often had a tin ear to the realities of poverty. There are those who will always be critical of his economic policies and of his decisions during the Persian Gulf War. Some said he did too much, some said too little.
But I can tell you, sitting and reading those letters in that sunny hotel room, I gained an appreciation of the man himself, and the gravity with which he took public service. Those letters connected him with a fine tradition of our forefathers, who also took the time to ponder their actions in the written word — and not in 280-character tweets.
So when I read the news that George Herbert Walker Bush had died, after 94 years on this earth, after serving in Congress and the United Nations and the CIA and the White House, after being possibly the youngest fighter pilot in the Navy in World War II, after celebrating his 90th birthday by skydiving, after serving one term as president, losing his re-election bid to Clinton, yet eventually working side by side with him, I was saddened.
Because I believe, for whatever his human or policy failings, Bush meant what he said in his inaugural address in 1989: “America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.”
Mitch Albom is a columnist at the Detroit Free Press, where this column first appeared. He is also the author of “The Next Person You Meet in Heaven.”