No. 41 deserves all the warm, kind words he’s getting, but they don’t quite capture the man I got to know at the end of his presidency. The man in full emerged when the shadows began to lengthen, as they inevitably will for us all, and as the good days began to ebb.
He never tried to deny or whitewash embarrassing moments, of the kind that every president has to suffer through. He had the gift of making sport with himself, eager like a Jewish comedian to make himself the butt of the moment, even when he once threw up in the lap of a prime minister.
“Roll me under the table until the dinner’s over,” he said. They didn’t do that, but he quickly recovered and the dinner proceeded.
The coalition to go after Saddam Hussein was one of his triumphant moments. But he briefly hesitated before pulling the trigger and that’s when Margaret Thatcher warned him, “Don’t go wobbly on us, George.” I echoed that in my column, as only a columnist full of himself can. “The moment requires a strong president, and George Bush wants to be the president of the Kennebunkport Yacht Club.” One day years later, as he prepared to leave office, a truck pulled up at my office with a framed pennant of the yacht club and another photograph, autographed by all hands, this one of the president in the Rose Garden with Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. No. 41 clearly does not hold grudges (as I might have). Both hang in my office now, and we were friends ever since.
Some years later I saw another presidential moment at a much less grand dinner, when I hosted a small dinner for him at the Watergate Hotel on his first trip back to Washington after he left the White House. The president chose the guests, and one of them was Helen Thomas, the pain in many presidents’ nether regions, with her sharp and pointed questions. Israel was her favorite topic.
Mr. Bush, who had returned from a private trip to Europe and the Middle East, had agreed to tell what he had learned from his conversations with heads of state. It was to be the after-dinner entertainment. Before he said the first word, Helen Thomas said sharply, “Tell us about the Middle East.” The president promised, and proceeded.
Two minutes into his presentation, Mrs. Thomas repeated her demand. “Tell us about the Middle East.”
“Helen,” I said. “Let the president get to it his way. You’ll get your questions.”
The president started again, she interrupted again, and David Brinkley spoke up from the end of the table. “Helen, this isn’t a press conference, let the president speak.”
“But he promised to talk about the Middle East,” she said.
“And I will, Helen, but in my time.”
He started a third time, with the same result, and the president spoke up again, this time with a little heat. “Helen,” he said, “I’ve waited a long time to say this. Shut up!”
He made a flirtatious remark to Suzanne Fields, seated at his side, earning a brief but icy look from Mrs. Bush, and the dinner proceeded to a cordial conclusion. (The Middle East turned out to be dark and stormy, as it always is.)
Mr. Bush had an earthy side that was always polite but occasionally unexpected. Many presidents do, by all accounts, which is often part of their charm. But it’s sometimes cringe-making. No. 41 knew the difference and knew not to cross the line of his own drawing.
He could be the starchy Episcopalian, but I once sat next to him at a small Congregational service near his home in Kennebunkport, and when he sang with Baptist fervor all four verses of John Newton’s great hymn, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,” he knew all the words without looking once at the book.
His faith, which Anglicans usually do not talk about with the ease of evangelicals, was crucial to comfort in his final years. He believed in a life after this one, and looked forward with considerable relish to seeing his wife and daughter Robin, who died age 3. He asked practical questions about what he could expect. “There are a lot of people I want to see,” he said, “but how do you find them? It’s not like there will be a big telephone book.” If there is, I’m confident his curiosity will lead him to it.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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