Kathleen Parker

Behind the swagger, George W. Bush was a man with a kind heart

Updated: 2013-04-28T22:06:26Z

By KATHLEEN PARKER

The Washington Post

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 Thursday’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. 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 swaggering caricature of the 43rd president was mostly a shield.

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.

July 2007: I had just written a eulogy for a friend who died in a car crash when I was summoned along with about a dozen other journalists to meet with the president. His director of media affairs, Jeanie Mamo, met me at the security gate, saw my bloodshot eyes and, having read my column, said how sorry she is. I start babbling something about how I wouldn’t have come except, and she interrupted: “Except that he’s the president of the United States.”

Yes, that’s it.

Once in the Roosevelt Room, Bush circled the room, shaking hands with each person, coming to me last. He gave a hug and said, “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 asked the boy’s name. Jackson. He wrote: “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 re-election, 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.

To reach Kathleen Parker, send email to kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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