Bush 41: Epitome of a good man

Bush 41: Epitome of a good man
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Walking away from power and divorcing oneself from all the puffery and pageantry that comes with being a “somebody” takes genuine character. Leave it to both Presidents Bush to embrace the idea of never looking back.

George Herbert Walker Bush, 41st President of the United States, certainly enjoyed the respect and admiration of many in the world, but his biggest impact after the presidency was his desire to live an unceremonial, action-packed life. The best parts of this man were father, husband and friend. But we would also have to add intrepid thrill-seeking retiree. As he grew older and less physically vibrant, he seemed to continue to embrace with gusto what he could do. When he could no longer easily speak, he smiled bigger. When he could no longer walk with ease, he wheeled everywhere, allowing his socks to make the ultimate statement.

It had to be a blow when he realized he would not be able to do the physical things he always relished. We saw him, as president, playing golf, tennis, jogging, swimming and, of course, his particular love of horseshoes. His swings and throws, much like his political rhetoric, were not always smooth but always purposeful and, mostly, close to the mark. He seemed to figure out a way to make it competitive, even when the odds were steep.

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This is was also true when he ran as a longshot for president in 1980 against many including Ronald Reagan, but despite fierce contrast (Bush was not afraid to go on the attack), the two men joined as a ticket and they literally rehabilitated the country and changed the world. Another virtue 41 personified:  loyalty to Ronald Reagan. 

Presidential elections are physically, emotionally and intellectually draining. The idea that the American people did not choose to re-elect “41” had to hurt deeply. It would be all too easy to have a certain bitterness take hold. Not with President Bush; he seemed to mourn his loss briefly and then began to jump into a life free from political power and obligations. He lived an aggressively active post-White House life. If you had the chance to talk with him, he was kind. He often poked fun at himself or some other deserving target — all in fun, to make you feel at ease. He had an unrelenting quality to try and make himself be as normal as possible and to relate to those around him.

On one occasion my mother and several other family members had the chance to sit and talk with the former president before a speech. He flicked through the channels and complained about the biased coverage of the news of the day, and the loss of a favorite sports team, much like any man in his 70s. The most ennobling take-away from that visit was that this important man was as regular as you would have hoped him to be. Having spent my adult life in politics I can assure you that this lack of pomposity is both unusual and refreshing.

I wish I had found the words to tell 41 that he was a much-needed example of how to be a man, a dad, a husband. I am sure he had missteps but, overall, people of my generation could see that he loved his country, that he was dedicated to his family, and that he was willing to serve a cause greater than his own desire to accomplish. For those of us searching for role models, as I was, few could have been better than 41.

However, telling him as much may have seemed odd. I do not think he gave his enduring decency much thought, which was the main reason he exemplified this virtue.

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When I think about a young 18-year-old from a wealthy, powerful family putting his prestige on hold and volunteering for the Navy shortly after Pearl Harbor, I simply cannot imagine having his courage. As has been recounted in many award-winning and worthwhile books, like “Flyboys” and “Destiny and Power,” Bush went on to become the youngest Navy pilot who eventually was assigned to risky bombing raids over Chichi Jima. Many of his colleagues on those bombing runs lost their lives, many were cannibalized. Bush’s life was spared. I have to think he always realized the hand of God in saving his life but also the aching guilt that others were not spared.

I still remember the video, shown at the Republican national conventions of the time, of a lanky, scared Bush being pulled from the water. He was just far enough out, and the U.S. Navy found him just soon enough, to prevent what would have been a sure death to the elements or the enemy.

Perhaps his wartime heroism helped to instill an appreciation for each breath God gives. Perhaps he realized that our lives are truly a gift and our time is limited. Perhaps we should give thanks to God for each breath, for each day, even when getting through it gets tougher. Just maybe as he grew older and weaker he was appreciative for the blessings of another day, the next breath, a laugh with a friend, another turn of the wheel.

George H.W. Bush did many brave and significant things for his country, as a soldier, a congressman, an ambassador, a Republican leader, a vice president and as commander in chief. But he also showed us that our lives are bigger than our resumes. That part of life is learning how to move beyond setbacks and mistakes. That it’s a gift that political power is fleeting and time in the spotlight is limited.

Men and women of character find comfort in each stage of a life well-lived, and embrace the time to heal and to reacquaint when the sound of the band is faint as it marches on.

When I see the statements from Bush family and friends talking about 41 being the “best” man they ever met, they most assuredly are referring to a man, not a title: They are talking about a man who put his life on the line, met the love of his life, raised a family he cherished, committed himself to a country he honored, who led by making the tough calls and letting the chips fall where they may — and, after reaching the summit of his journey, remained humble enough to allow us to see him wipe away tears, leap from airplanes, and grow old with a certain dignity that comes with knowing one has fully lived a meaningful life.

Matt Schlapp is chairman of the American Conservative Union and CPAC. He was the White House political director to former President George W. Bush. He also served as CoChairman of 'Bush for President' while a student at the University of Notre Dame in 1988. Follow him on Twitter @mschlapp.