The call came last Friday night, telling former senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) that his old friend, the 41st president of the United States, had died. The time had come for Simpson to take out the notes that he had started making six years ago.
Back in 2012, George H.W. Bush was hospitalized for weeks in intensive care, and it had appeared he might not survive that bout with a fever and bronchial problems. Bush’s longtime chief of staff Jean Becker got in touch with Simpson and told him the family wanted him to eulogize Bush when the time came.
“I said, ‘What a great honor.’ And that’s all that was said," Simpson recalled Tuesday. “And so, I made some notes, and put them all away.”
Over the next years, as Bush’s health continued to fail, there were other close calls. Simpson never discussed the assignment he had been given with Bush himself. He never probed to discern what the former president might want to be said about his life and legacy in Wednesday’s funeral at Washington National Cathedral.
“George wasn’t asking people to do anything. He didn’t want to talk about this stuff,” Simpson said. The family’s only request was that Simpson hold his comments to no more than 10 minutes.
Once, however, when Simpson was being treated for cancer in Houston, Bush took his pal to see a magnificent new house of worship being constructed by St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, where Bush was a member.
“They built this brand-spanking-new thing, and I said, ‘This is really something,’ ” Simpson recalled.
“I think they built that waiting for me to croak,” Bush deadpanned.
That Simpson would be asked to speak is a tribute not only to his personal closeness to Bush but also to his reputation for blunt-spoken humor. It is an indication that the Bush family wanted to be sure there would be light moments as they laid to rest their patriarch.
Simpson and Bush had a friendship that began in 1962, in one of those only-in-Washington ways. When Simpson’s father, Milward, was elected to the Senate from Wyoming, he took over the office of a retiring Connecticut senator, Prescott Bush, the father of the future president. Then, when Milward Simpson retired after one term, he sold his house to George H.W. Bush, who had just been elected to Congress from Texas.
Before he drafted his eulogy, Simpson and his wife, Ann, paused to take stock of more than half a century of shared experiences.
“Ann and I sat at the table for an hour maybe, talking about the fun things we had done -- throwing snowballs off the roof, going to Andrew Lloyd Webber, trips to the Glacier Park when he was vice president, afterwards going to Greece with him for 10 days when he invited us to join a family gathering,” Simpson said.
But in 10 minutes, “you can’t even begin to delve in on those things. There’s no room for that. You just delve in on the things that mean something to you deeply and personally, and try to keep it light,” Simpson said, adding: “You’ll see reflected in those 10 minutes a pretty good capsulation, which I have drafted and redrafted all by my little self. It’s going to be a distillation of what he meant to me down inside.”
There was one other thing Simpson was determined to get out of the way, before he steps up to give his final tribute to his friend.
“You cry while you’re preparing it,” he said, “so you won’t cry while you’re giving it.”