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 terrorism, George W. Bush.
During last week’s dedication of his library at Southern Methodist University, nary a word was spoken about the most controversial aspect of his tenure, the Iraq invasion. 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 of Bush, 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.
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.
What I offer is an anecdote that I think reveals what the cameras and critics could not. These recollections are simply recorded for the sake of biography in the interest of rounding out 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 has 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 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, shaking hands with each person, coming to me last. He gives a hug and says, “You’re not alone. I’m right there with you.”
Somehow I managed not to burst into tears. After the meeting he returned to give me another hug, whereupon I asked 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 knowing. He really did feel others’ pain.
Bush, 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.