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The gentleman president

December 4, 2018 12:08 am

The most touching account of former president George H. W. Bush’s death this weekend was a sidebar in the New York Times about his final words.

James Baker, Bush’s former secretary of state and White House chief of staff, was summoned to Bush’s Texas home as the end neared.

“Where are we going now, Bake?” Bush asked.

“We’re going to heaven,” Baker replied.

“Good,” the former president said. “I want to go there.”

The story concluded with former president George W. Bush telling his dad that he was the best father a son could ever have. The elder Bush replied, “I love you, too.”

Tall, at 6 feet 2 inches, George H. W. Bush was genial and gentlemanly — except when he was in the midst of a tough campaign. Admonished by his mother against self-promotion, Bush avoided the first-person-singular pronoun. He became known for his call for a “kinder and gentler” nation, the often-quoted words he used in his inaugural address to describe his vision, a dream that has been obliterated in the Republican party’s seismic shift to the right.

Bush’s hallmark was civility. As a candidate, he was known to ask his Secret Service detail to stop at traffic lights. He wrote enough thank-you notes, courtesy cards and letters of sympathy to fill a book, literally.

Its title was his customary signoff, “All the Best, George Bush.” Published in 1999, the book appeared in place of a traditional presidential memoir, which he thought would be unseemly for a man whose mother, Dorothy W. Bush, had taught him the importance of modesty.

As president, George H. W. Bush had political triumphs, mostly in foreign policy, and defeats, mostly in domestic policy (remember “Read my lips”), but as a man, Bush was approachable, courteous and down-to-earth. That is the way he should be remembered.

I admit this is a gross exaggeration and comparison but even Hitler loved his dog. Which is to say that though his personal qualities to family and friends may have been admirable, his acts as a public servant and politician were significantly at odds with those qualities. But they were at least as important as those personal qualities and in the afterglow of his death we shouldn't forget them.