Today, the entire nation is just a little quieter as we pause to remember former President George H. W. Bush, who died Friday at the age of 94.
Later this morning, his state funeral will be held at Washington National Cathedral, and tomorrow, his family and close friends will say their final good-byes to him at a service in Texas. Doubtless, both ceremonies will be filled with memories and anecdotes that evoke respect, honor, and maybe even a few laughs.
But what would Bush have to say about himself, his life, and his legacy? Unfortunately, I’ll never have the chance to ask him, to my everlasting regret. There are loads of books and miles of posts about his life and work, but they somehow lack the intimacy of an interview.
The one thing that does convey that sense of intimacy is his letters. For a man who often suffered compared to Ronald “The Great Communicator” Reagan, Bush was a poetic, passionate, and moving communicator on paper. Moreover, he was a prolific and gifted writer of letters. While at some point in his life, he doubtless became aware that his words would be read by more than the recipient and would become part of the historical record, it’s impossible to miss the genuine warmth and strong character that shine through them all.
Here’s what I learned perusing his letters this week:
Moxie lives with a broken but hopeful heart.
By all accounts, the loss of their second born, a little girl they called Robin, deeply marked George and Barbara. Though the went on to have four boys and another girl, the Bushes never forgot Robin and she was always a part of their lives. George expressed his longing for his lost little girl in a poignant letter he penned in 1958.
“There is about our house a need. The running, pulsating restlessness of the four boys as they struggle to learn and grow; the world embraces them… all this wonder needs a counter-part. We need some starched crisp frocks to go with all our torn-kneed blue jeans and helmets. We need some soft blonde hair to offset those crew dollhouseeed a dollhouse to stand firm against our forts and rackets and thousand baseball cards …” he wrote.
The letter is full of gratitude for their home and the love that filled it, but it is also a tender expression of mourning from the heart of a still-grieving dad.
It is beautiful to imagine George embracing his little girl once again.
Moxie is gracious.
Not long after Bush’s passing, an image of a letter he left for his successor in the Oval Office began making its rounds on social media. After a hard-fought campaign, Bill Clinton had bested Bush and made him a one-term president. So it would have been easy to be bitter and passive-aggressive. But, instead, this is what Bush wrote:
“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 want your family well.
Your success now is our country’s success. So I am rooting hard for you.”
Hillary Clinton posted the letter on Instagram and shared how it moved her to tears again as she re-read it years after reading it for the first time.
“That is the America we love,” she said.
It takes moxie to be gracious in defeat, and to hold the good of the country over your own self-interest. But, unfortunately, this letter is just one of many examples where Bush did precisely that.
Moxie isn’t afraid to speak up.
Bush’s letters weren’t all warm regards. He turned his pen into a sword on occasion, too, as he did in 1995 when he resigned his lifetime membership in the National Rifle Association.
Bush’s fired off the letter in response to a fundraising plea penned by N.R.A. leader Wayne LaPierre. In a fit of rhetorical flourish, LaPierre had issue dire warnings about that a ban on semi-automatic weapons would give “jack-booted government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.” The letter included comparisons of federal agents to Nazis and suggested the government would “murder law-abiding citizens.”
The former President did not have it. A member of his Secret Service detail had been killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, and his own time as President, vice president and head of the C.I.A. had given him a deep understanding and appreciation for law enforcement and federal agents.
“I am a gun owner and an avid hunter. Over the years, I have agreed with most of N.R.A.’s objectives, particularly your educational and training efforts and your fundamental stance in favor of owning guns.
However, your broadside against Federal agents deeply offends my sense of decency and honor; and it offends my concept of service to the country. Moreover, it indirectly slanders a wide array of government law enforcement officials, who are out there, day and night, laying their lives on the line for all of us.”
Crossing the N.R.A. is risky business, especially for Republicans. The organization wields significant power and earning its endorsement is a top priority. But Bush had the moxie to make a stand.
His stand had some impact. A week after Bush’s resignation, LaPierre issued an apology and clarified his statements.
Bush’s voice is now silent, but he still speaks to us through the letters he left behind.
If you could write a letter to Bush, what would you say?