Patti Davis is the author of, most recently, “The Earth Breaks in Colors” and is the daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
On June 11, 2004, President George H.W. Bush walked slowly down the center aisle of Washington National Cathedral to eulogize my father. Outside, gray mist fell. We had walked in somber procession into the cathedral, light rain mingling with tears, my father’s flag-draped coffin carried by uniformed pallbearers. Presidents are laid to rest with great ceremony and tradition, but they are still human beings who left imprints on other people’s lives. That day, Bush told us about the imprints my father had left on his.
Eulogies are difficult to compose. The best ones are a fine mingling of heart, humor and poignancy. That day, in the hushed space of the cathedral, as rain drifted down outside, Bush spoke about the man who had touched his life. He spoke about my father’s gentleness and humor, about his strength and his deep, abiding love for America. At one point, his voice broke as he fought back tears. He said, “As his vice president for eight years, I learned more from Ronald Reagan than from anyone I encountered in all my years of public life. I learned kindness — we all did. I learned courage — the nation did.” The tears he fought against brought my family and me to tears. It was one of those moments when you know that the person who is speaking is stripping his soul bare and letting you in.
I wish now that we had told him how deeply his eulogy moved us. We talked about it on the long flight back across the country to California, where my father would be buried and our time of private mourning would begin. It came up often — that moment when Bush’s voice cracked, when tears intruded upon his words, when he was raw and honest in how much his heart was hurting.
He also did what is so difficult to do in eulogies — he turned everyone’s tears to laughter with humor. He recalled that when asked how his meeting with South African Bishop Desmond Tutu went, my father — playing on the bishop’s name — responded, “So-so.”
America will lay to rest a man who served his country. We will pause, and mourn, and reflect. We might also want to mourn the loss of dignity that we have long associated with the office of the president and that is no longer there. No matter what you thought of George H.W. Bush’s time in office, he never attacked or abused people or institutions. He was never crude or dismissive of people who were hurting. And he had reverence for the Constitution and the pillars of democracy that built this nation — the pillars that are now being chipped away, crudely and casually. He understood that peace is a fragile thing, and that to maintain it, nations have to work together, employ diplomacy and treat one another with respect. That tone is set by leaders.
What a beautiful image, encouraging people to aim for the heavens instead of groveling in the shadows, inspiring people to leave a mark that lights up the darkness.
My wish for the Bush family is that they look into the night sky and see a thousand and one points of light.