Un­der­stand­ing ‘41,’ one let­ter at a time

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS | OPINION - Mitch Al­bom

When I heard the news that Ge­orge H.W. Bush had died, I im­me­di­ately flashed 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 flipped 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 figured 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 flip 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 fly. He wrote about his jour­ney over­seas, his fears, his strong pa­tri­o­tism. He wrote about get­ting shot down dur­ing a bat­tle over the Pacific, an in­ci­dent in which two of his crew­men died, how the plane filled 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 float­ing down, I looked up at the canopy and sev­eral of the pan­els were all ripped out. Just as I got float­ing 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 flight. … 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-reflec­tion, 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 sel­f­reflec­tion. 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 fine 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 fighter 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 first ap­peared. He is also the author of “The Next Per­son You Meet in Heaven.”

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