Melinda Henneberger

Mourning Bush 41 — and an America that at least wanted to be kinder and gentler

The tsunami of sentiment occasioned by George H.W. Bush’s death last week, at age 94, is not only an expression of respect and affection for our 41st president, though those are real enough. It’s not only or even mostly a function of negative feelings about our current president, either, though that’s a factor, too.

“Is the George H.W. Bush Deification Tour almost over?” a cranky friend asked. Of course, the man made mistakes, and some of them were real lulus.

But it’s right that America should mourn the passing of the man who called each of us to work in our own communities for the common good, “like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.”

(“I never quite got that one,” President Donald Trump said at a July rally in Montana. “What the hell is that? Has anyone ever figured that one out? It was put out by a Republican, wasn’t it?” Maybe Peggy Noonan, who with Craig R. Smith wrote that speech, can explain it to him some time.)

Those of us who loved that whole concept also mourn the passing of a time when we as a country at least aspired to be kinder and gentler instead of ruder and less encumbered by either propriety or principle. And that, I think, explains the hunger to hear and tell stories not just of Navy Lieutenant Bush, World War II pilot and decorated hero, but of Poppy Bush, decent human, who by going out of his way for others was an everyday hero, too. There is a reason that former Sen. Bob Dole, who is 95, rose from his wheelchair to stand and salute the former GOP rival he once ordered to “stop lying about my record.”

In the days since his death, we’ve been memorializing Bush’s thoughtful notes and small kindnesses of all kinds. We’ve been remembering how much he hated to brag on himself, and how often he went out of his way to put children at ease. That’s a wonderful thing to see celebrated, in a world that sometimes seems to have forgotten the quiet power of a word of encouragement or gesture of support.

Years ago, I was at the Bush home in Maine to do a story on a new book by Barbara Bush, and after lunch, everyone else was going to play golf, so the former president says why don’t you take a swim while we’re gone? Love to, but I don’t have a suit or anything. This seems to please him to no end, because he’s just been to the local Walmart and picked up a basic black one-piece in every single size for drop-in lady swimmers like me. “And they’re very discreet,” he tells me. Walks me up to the pool house himself, proudly shows me his shopping score and then turns away so as not to see which size I take. Old school, right?

Sure, I remember this thoughtfulness in part because this was a former POTUS showing me where the towels were. But then, I also remember the New York bank teller who on the day I moved there in 1989 floated me a $100 loan out of her own account so I’d have some walking around money until my check cleared. I’ll never forget the New York cabbie who, after I left my Filofax — remember those? — in his taxi, went to a lot of trouble to drop it off for me before I’d missed it, and left without even waiting for me to come down and tip him. I could go on, and I’m sure you could, too.

Another known mensch and doer of small acts of service, it should be said, is the man H.W. defeated, Michael Dukakis. His wife, Kitty Dukakis, once told me in an interview that his habit of going around Boston picking up whatever trash and plastic bags he came across on his way home used to annoy her, because how did it look for the former governor of Massachusetts to go around stuffing bags in his pockets? “And now I do it, too.”

Both he and George Herbert Walker Bush have called Americans to a kind of greatness that’s available to all of us, no matter who is president.

If we love or do not love the current POTUS, let’s at least agree on what Bush said in his inaugural address, when he again spoke of “the brighter points of light” and said he would ask every member of his government to do some kind of volunteer work. “The old ideas are new again,” he said, “because they are not old, they are timeless: duty, sacrifice, commitment and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part and pitching in.” Rest in peace, Mr. President.