As America pauses this week to honor its 41st president, much has been said, deservingly, about the public George Bush and his presidential accomplishments. It is my honor today to add to this record a more personal side of George Bush.
It was my privilege and honor to serve President George Herbert Walker Bush, to be at his side in nearly 50 states and many foreign countries. Treasured memories of those experiences abound.
His wit and warmth were genuine and personal. After he helped peacefully end the Cold War, he became the first American president to visit Budapest, Hungary. He was to address an enormous outdoor crowd, and it was raining. Seeing he had no raincoat, I loaned him mine. Moments later he saw a stooped, elderly Hungarian woman without a raincoat, and being a consummate gentleman, he immediately removed his coat and gave it to her. Later I asked him where my raincoat was, knowing of course what he'd done with it. Paraphrasing Nathan Hale’s famous 1776 last words, his quick response was: "Steve, I regret that you have but one raincoat to give for your country." I never saw that raincoat again.
The theme of George H.W. Bush's presidential inaugural, which I was honored to direct, was "George to George, 200 Years of the American Presidency." Reflecting now on Bush's presidency, I am struck by the many similarities of these two consequential presidents. They believed public service was noble and let others take the credit.
As a youth, George Washington recorded "100 Rules of Civility." He was a gentleman who valued grace, dignity, respect, courtesy and humility. So did George Bush. Coarse political hostility, so regrettably common today, was deeply uncomfortable to Bush, who embraced gentle words.
The Georges shared an abiding faith in God. In Leiden, Netherlands, in the 15th-century Pieterskerk church where the pilgrims assembled in 1620 and launched their journey on the Mayflower to the New World, with tears in his eyes Bush spoke of his Pilgrim forebears, who sacrificed everything to establish freedom of religion in the new world of America.
George Washington was a man of private faith, not for calculated political advantage but because that was who he was. The same can be said of George Bush.
George Washington is known to have loved those he sent into combat, to have prayed for them and to have personally mourned their loss. So did George Bush. Bush’s inauguration day began with a family church service. When he took the oath of office, he placed his hand on two Bibles. One was the Bible used by George Washington 200 years earlier, and one was the Bush family Bible opened to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.
The Georges, patriots both, put country first. In then-Communist Gdansk, Poland, standing with freedom fighter Lech Walesa in front of the Solidarity Workers Monument before a crowd of a million Poles imprisoned under Marxist rule, he spoke movingly of the Poles’ yearning for American-style freedom and things American.
And what’s more American than baseball? Having a deep love of the game, Bush introduced American Little League Baseball to Polish youth. At his side was the beloved Polish American Carl Yastrzemski, a Baseball Hall of Famer from the Boston Red Sox.
Like our first president, our 41st president’s humility was remarkable. In his inaugural address he said, “My first act as president is a prayer. I ask you to bow your heads.” And he then offered a prayer. His inaugural week culminated in a special service of prayer and thanksgiving at Washington’s National Cathedral, the same cathedral where his funeral will be conducted Wednesday.Comment on this story
After taking the oath of office, his first presidential document was a proclamation declaring a day of prayer and thanksgiving. He signed it George H.W. Bush, a signature he'd never used as vice president. I quietly asked him if that was his new presidential signature, and he smiled and with genuine modesty whispered, "No. I was nervous." Such a wonderfully warm and humble admission of a new president.
Today we mourn a good and great man who, with his sweetheart, Barbara, loved and served God, loved and served family and loved and served country — for a lifetime.