The Oval Office note that George H.W. Bush left for Bill Clinton. (Courtesy of Bill Clinton/Courtesy of Bill Clinton)

On the day he became the oldest president in American history, George H.W. Bush wrote one of his final letters. For most of his 94 years, handwritten notes had been 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.

On his final birthday, Bush settled for a tweet. His 94-year-old hands, he said, would never forgive him for responding to all of his well-wishers with pen and ink.

“As many of you know, for years I have said the three most important things in life are faith, family and friends,” Bush wrote. “My faith has never been stronger. . . . I feel the love of the best friends a man ever had.”

Bush, who died Friday and will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol until Wednesday morning, was quickly lauded for his decades of public service, loyalty to loved ones and unflinching sense of civic duty. But his decency and compassion often played out subtly and behind the scenes, with his letters offering the most intimate glimpse of the 41st president.

Bush was “the inveterate letter writer,” wrote presidential historian Jon Meacham in his Bush biography, “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush.” The notes, Meacham said, “offered a window on an active, sympathetic, eclectic mind.”

Many of those letters were published in Bush’s memoir, “All the Best.” Compiled over decades, the letters cast Bush as a doting son, and as a father mourning the loss of his 3-year-old daughter, Robin.

They capture a folksy Texas oil executive at the beginnings of his political career, and a fierce friend when others were down on their luck. Later in Bush’s life, the letters gave voice to a man relishing his post-presidency days: “Barbara is a good cook,” he wrote just after Bill Clinton’s inauguration. “I AM A GOOD DISH WASHER.”

On Monday, Vice President Mike Pence memorialized Bush in the Capitol Rotunda, saying the late president left "a record of his life in the thousands of letters that he wrote.” Pence said that his own son, a marine aviator, received a note in August 2018 after making his first tailhook landing on the U.S.S. George Herbert Walker Bush.

“Though we have not met,” Bush wrote, “I share the pride your father has for your during this momentous occasion, and I wish you many CAVU days ahead.”

The acronym, Pence said, is short for “ceiling and visibility unlimited” -- an expression used by Navy pilots since World War II, and Bush’s motto for his own life.

The letters are those of a principled statesman. In his last moments in the Oval Office, Bush wrote a single letter to his successor.

“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,” Bush wrote to Clinton.

“You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.”

Years later, Clinton did the same for his own successor, George W. Bush. Clinton wrote in his memoir that he “wanted to be gracious and encouraging, as George Bush had been to me.”

After the April 1995 bombing of the federal office building in Oklahoma City, the National Rifle Association said federal agents were “jack-booted thugs.”

Outraged, Bush resigned as an NRA lifetime member. He wrote to the group saying, “Your broadside against federal agents deeply offends my own sense of decency and honor; and it offends my concept of service to this country.”

Bush’s words were those of a loving husband. During World War II, letters were the only bridge between him and his future wife, Barbara Pierce. In December 1943, he wrote to his “Darling Bar”: “I love you precious with all my heart and to know that you love me, means my life.”

Less than one year later, Bush was shot down over Chichi Jima in the Pacific. Bush stayed alive until a submarine emerged to rescue him, but the letters from Barbara he carried with him did not. Not long after, Barbara received a letter from George assuring her that “all was well.” But the letter was dated before his plane had been hit.


Navy Lt. George Bush and Barbara Pierce get married in the First Presbyterian Church in Rye, N.Y., on Jan. 6, 1945. (Corbis/Getty Images) (Historical/Corbis via Getty Images)

Letters were also crucial to shaping Bush’s worldview, said Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. In the Navy, one of Bush’s tasks was to screen letters written by other enlisted men to make sure they didn’t include sensitive military information.

Growing up in Greenwich, Conn., and later at boarding school, Bush had lived a privileged and insular life before Pearl Harbor. But the letters written by his fellow officers showed him a widely diverse slice of America.

“Reading their personal letters really showed him what was different about people, and what was common about people,” Engel said.

At times, Bush’s letters were born of his greatest pain. In April 1967, he wrote to a friend who had been diagnosed with cancer, insisting that “in this field there is change — there is radical discovery — there is hope.” Bush wrote of how he and Barbara were determined to continue treating their daughter, who died of leukemia in 1953, despite a doctor’s recommendation to “let nature take its course.”

“My point I guess is this,” Bush wrote. “Today a kid with leukemia has a much greater chance — and so tomorrow perhaps a gutsy guy with carcinoma might well have it made.”

It was that same genuine manner that Bush extended to those with whom he often clashed. In his memoir, Bush wrote that when he was president, Washington Post reporter Ann Devroy “gave me heartburn many mornings when I opened the Post."

But in 1996, when Bush learned that Devroy had cancer, he set aside the bitterness and wrote to her, “I want you to win this battle.”

“I want that same toughness that angered me and frustrated me to a fare-thee-well at times to see you through your fight,” he told her.

In the preface to his memoir, Bush wrote that the letters and diary entries spanning decades are meant to show the “heartbeat” of an 18-year-old pilot, of a politician living far from home, of a president deciding whether to send someone else’s child into combat.

“If you enjoy reading it even just a tenth as much as I’ve enjoyed living it,” Bush wrote, “then that is very good indeed.”

He signed the preface: “All the best, George Bush.”

Read more Retropolis:

How Barbara fell in love with George H.W. Bush, ‘the most beautiful creature I had ever laid eyes on’

‘One last time’: Barbara Bush had already faced a death more painful than her own

‘Wouldn’t be prudent’: George H.W. Bush’s unlikely friendship with Dana Carvey

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