In a reprieve from the horror of the most recent terrorist attack, the nation’s attentions turned to the man who declared the war on terror, George W. Bush.
During Thursday’s dedication of his presidential library at Southern Methodist University, nary a word was spoken about the most controversial aspect of his tenure, the invasion of Iraq. All living presidents were in attendance and made only generic references to mistakes and regrets familiar to all. Of course Bush famously acknowledges no mistakes or regrets but rather bequeaths judgment to history and self-doubt to those of lesser conviction.
This observation, though true, is not the whole story, however. Nearly everyone who has known Bush up closer than a video clip has a different impression of him than what is more popularly accepted. The arrogant, swaggering caricature of the 43rd president was mostly a shield. Bravado of the “bring ’em on” variety was more personal jab than foreign policy statement, though one suspects that Bush enjoyed the sound of tiny feet scurrying to keyboards in search of deeper meaning.
Obviously what a president says and does is fair game for criticism. The way Bush chose to express himself was the way he would be perceived and judged. To act arrogantly is to be arrogant in the public eye. To speak awkwardly is to be awkward.
But in private, Bush was a very different man. In small groups, he was articulate and confident. When the cameras were off, he was relaxed and natural. Not everyone is made for TV, and this is no criticism. It can be a deficit for public figures, but people who are at one with lights and cameras are sometimes better actors than statesmen.
Everyone is familiar with Bush’s history and performance. What I offer is an anecdote or two that I think reveal what the cameras and critics could not. These recollections are simply recorded for the sake of biography in the interest of providing a more complete picture of a two-term, transformational president who changed our world in ways that won’t be fully understood or judged in our lifetimes.
July 2007: I have just written a eulogy for a friend who died in a car crash when I am summoned, along with about a dozen other journalists, to meet with the president. His director of media affairs, Jeanie Mamo, meets me at the security gate, sees my bloodshot eyes and, having read my column, says how sorry she is. I start babbling something about how I wouldn’t have come except — and she interrupts: “Except that he’s the president of the United States.”
Yes, that’s it.
Once in the Roosevelt Room, Bush circles the room and shakes hands with each person, coming to me last. He gives me a hug and says, “You’re not alone. I’m right there with you.”
Somehow I manage not to burst into tears. After the meeting, he returns to give me another hug, whereupon I ask a favor. Would he write a note to my friend’s son? Absolutely. In the Oval Office, he asks the boy’s name. Jackson. He writes: “Dear Jackson, I know your heart is broken. I will pray for you. Sincerely, George W. Bush.”
More or less. Unfortunately, I failed to copy the letter before delivering it to the son at my friend’s funeral.
I tell this story because it should be part of the public record of this president, not least because such gestures were not rare. Bush often met privately and without fanfare with the families of fallen soldiers. He often visited the wounded without anyone’s knowing. He really did feel others’ pain.
During a one-on-one interview on Air Force One, I asked him about his hardest days as president. He rejected the question as irrelevant. The hardest day of his life was seeing his father lose his bid for reelection, not because the Bush family needed more time in the Rose Garden but because seeing his father, “this great man,” suffer was so painful.
Every president (thus far) is also just a man, which is to say, human. His frailties and flaws are in plain sight, every gesture a potential weapon of self-destruction. For reasons that are perhaps a characteristic of our untamed nature, we seem intent on elevating presidents only to bring them down.
Thus it was with Bush, who, our favorite cartoons notwithstanding, was more than a composite of swagger and smirk. He was also a kind man with a gentle heart who should be remembered as such.