Remembering George H. W. Bush: A Man of Letters

Remembering George H. W. Bush: A Man of Letters

Remembering George H. W. Bush: A Man of Letters

Later this morning, the state funeral for George Herbert Walker Bush will commence. In attendance will be former presidents and first ladies, world leaders, family and friends. Our nation will pause and reflect on George H. W. Bush, the man and his legacy. Mr. Bush may not always have been comfortable in the public eye, but he was a man of letters, literally as well as figuratively.

As reported by the Washington Post, writing a letter was the elder Bush’s “preferred method of connecting with family members, friends, colleagues and foes, whether from an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific or behind a desk in the Oval Office.”

Time had this to say:

But as much as he may have seemed at times to be distant at the podium, the man who put pen to paper in private was less self-conscious, at times personable and at times combative and, on occasion, quite funny.”

In All the Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings, you see Mr. Bush come to life through his correspondence. It begins with his time in the Navy during World War II. Most of those letters are written to his parents. There are a few to others, including one to his future wife, his beloved “Bar”. In these letters, GHWB comes more human, more alive, than he ever was in soundbites and 30 second news videos.

In a letter written to his mother in the second half of 1942, you get a glimpse of just what Barbara meant to him, even before they were engaged.

. . Mum, I’m really worried. I hope it’s one of her lapses which she falls in occasionally either because she’s busy or just to keep me anxious and interested; but I haven’t gotten but 1 letter in 3 1/2 weeks. Before there were a couple of 2 week famines but never this. I don’t know, hope it’s not the “fluff.” Being away from all nice girls I worry more than usual over Barb. It’s silly but that’s how its been. As I’ve said before Barb is really a smart girl in that she can be sweet and all that without committing herself to any great degree—Oh well, not much I can do now. . . .” (p. 34)

Barbara lost most of the letters he wrote her during the war. One, from Dec. 12, 1943, she saved in her engagement scrapbook. It was the beginning of their “official” love affair and subsequent 73 year marriage.

My darling Bar,

This should be a very easy letter to write–words should come easily and in short should be simple for me to tell you how desperately happy I was to open the paper and see the announcement of our engagement, but somehow I can’t possibly say all in a letter I should like to.

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. . . .” (pg. 39)

Their son, Jeb, said, “Our family has had a front-row seat for the most amazing love story.” Can there be any better legacy–or example–parents can set for their children? I’m sure others might say “yes” but, in my eyes at least, having a loving foundation and seeing what a happy, healthy relationship can be is exactly what every child should enjoy.

Mr. Bush wrote from his heart, whether in the letter was to family, friends or strangers. In April 1989, he wrote to Joe Hartung after seeing Hartung’s performance in an air show.

What a treat to watch those vintage planes in action again. . .You and your fellow aviators are to be commended, not only for your skill and energy in putting on the show, but also for your dedication in keeping those planes in such good shape. They may not be as sleek and sophisticated as their modern counterparts, but they are still magnificent flying machines. Even more important, they did the job when needed, performing yeoman service in defense of our country’s freedom.”

The letter was written on White House stationary and was accompanied by a signed photo of Bush in his bomber jacket. In recounting the story, Hartung’s daughter, Kaylee, wrote:

The man who volunteered to serve his country on his 18th birthday [Bush], shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, became one of the youngest naval aviators at the time, made friends in the war, and lost friends in the war, wrote: ‘When you fly these planes, you put on an exhilarating show and you provide a powerful reminder of the tremendous sacrifices so many men made to keep America free and of the duty we each have to ensure those sacrifices were not in vain. That’s a worthy achievement indeed, and you can take great pride in your efforts.'” 

That was just one of a number of letters Mr. Bush wrote to thank or congratulate people on their service to our country.

We heard another two days ago. It will be a long time before most of us forget the letter Mr. Bush sent to Vice-President Mike Pence’s son not too long before Bush’s death.

It is easy to see how much the letter touched the Vice-President.

Mr. Bush revealed he could put aside political ill-will and hard feelings with the letter he left for Bill Clinton when the administrations changed.

“Your success now is our country’s success.” That pretty much sums up Mr. Bush’s feelings about the presidency. As the Washington Post put it, the letter was an “artifact of political humility.” To me, that perfectly describes Mr. Bush.

Agree with his politics or not, Mr. Bush always did what he felt best for this country, and he always did it with the idea of honor and duty.

His love for his family and the pain of the loss of his daughter, Robin, is evident in this letter to his mother, written in 1958. According to Mr Bush, it was found in his mother’s things after her death in 1992. (All the Best, pg. 80)

Mr. Bush saw a number of challenges to this country as president, but none came to the level of those faced by his son, George W. Bush, in the aftermath of 9/11. In a letter to “Hugh”, written September 12, 2001, Mr. Bush wrote:

It is the day after the day of infamy.

Yesterday Bar and I were flying from Washington, where we had spent the night at the White House, to St. Paul, Minn. when we got diverted to Milwaukee airport. We were whisked off to a motel well outside of Milwaukee’s City limits.

We got updated by the USSS on what they knew about what was transpiring, and then at our hotel we did what the whole world did–we watched the television in horror.

I had so many thoughts rush through my head.

First and foremost related to the safety of the President. I had full confidence in his security, but given the coordination of the attacks I did not feel comfortable. . .

One thing we must carefully look at is how we can use more human intelligence and protect those people willing to cooperate with our CIA. This means dealing with “bad guys”. Evil People. Unsavory folks who will betray their own country. It is not easy to find such people. It is impossible if our sources of human intelligence are not indelibly protected. It is impossible if the CIA continues to be demonized for using “bad guys”.

Congress with its insistence on knowing every detail under the guise of “right to know” just be more disciplined, more leak proof. We have to look carefully at the Executive Orders and Laws governing Humint (Human Intelligence). Spying is touch and ugly game. You deal with unsavory people a la Noriega. yet these people are often the ones that can penetrate organizations.

We must carefully find a way to guard against terrorists that are American and thus exempt from some intelligence gathering. . . .” (All the Best, pp 646-647)

What a shame so many in government, then and now, haven’t heeded Mr. Bush’s words.

As the Nation begins this national day of mourning, all I can say is CAVU, Mr. Bush. Here’s hoping you have ceiling and visibility unlimited as you wing your way to join your beloved Bar and darling Robin. The nation and the world might not have always appreciated you but we are better for having you, your love of family and country and your sense of duty in it.

God speed, good sir, God speed.


For more on George Herbert Walker Bush, check out Deanna’s post.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons, photo by Airman 1st Class Michael Murphy, 11th Wing Public Affairs. (Public domain image)

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