That was the Bush who showed up here at the elder Bush’s presidential library for the release of his biography of his father, with dad looking on from the front row: Loose, jovial and self-deprecating, he affectionately poked fun at himself and his family.
The younger Bush said he’d learned as a 6-year-old caught stealing toy soldiers that dad’s disciplinary style was different than mom’s. His punishment: apologize to the owner of the store where he had taken them.
“There was no harsh follow-up. No ‘you’re going to be confined to your room.’ None of that,” he said.
Mother Barbara Bush had a different style.
“One time she caught me urinating in the hedges and washed my mouth out with soap,” he said.
“41: A Portrait of My Father,” which hit bookstores Tuesday, is an account of George H.W. Bush that his son is quick concede is less than objective. He’s called it “a love story about an extraordinary man I’ve been blessed to call my father.”
“I wrote it when I did because I wanted dad to be alive,” he told the crowd.
The elder Bush’s health has declined in recent years, and he uses a wheelchair to get around. He was hospitalized for several weeks in late 2012 for a cough, and later a fever.
Nonetheless, he celebrated his 90th birthday earlier this year with a parachute jump.
“He can’t walk, but he sure can laugh and smile,” the 43rd president told NPR.
The new book also comes as the political world’s gaze has fallen on Bush’s younger brother Jeb, the former Florida governor who is mulling a run for the White House in 2016. He was not in the audience.
“I can tell you that I can speak for 41 when I say this: He ought to run for president,” Bush told a packed auditorium.
Jeb Bush is “making a very personal decision,” he continued. “We can pressure him all we want. It’s not going to matter. Because he knows the consequences of his decision.”
The 43rd president’s book traces the elder Bush’s life from his early years as a Navy pilot in World War II to his rise in the Texas oil industry and long career in government as congressman, CIA director and eventually the country’s chief executive.
It is also a reflection the elder Bush’s influence on his son’s life and a meditation on how that shaped his presidency.
“I learned at the knee of a master,” said Bush.
The 41st president never penned a presidential memoir, as ex-presidents typically do.
Andrew Card, chief of staff to the younger Bush and transportation secretary under his father, moderated the discussion. He thanked Bush for pulling back the curtain on a family “who gave us much more than we are willing to acknowledge.”
The book is the 43rd president’s latest non-controversial achievement in a low-key post-presidency that has contrasted sharply with his often-polarizing years as chief executive.
Woefully unpopular when he left office in 2009, Bush retreated into a quiet private life. He has taken up art and writing, painting portraits of world leaders and penning two books.
To many in attendance here Tuesday, the lows of the Bush presidency seemed like a distant memory amid the constant stream of wisecracks from the stage.
“I love his sense of humor. I just think it’s terrific,” said Beverley Russell of Bryan, Tex.
This post has been updated.