The gracious toughness of my old boss, George H.W. Bush

Graciousness and toughness. Contradictory attributes though these may seem, in George Herbert Walker Bush they existed in equal, remarkably abundant measure.

Start with the toughness. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the future president could have stayed in school. Instead, he enlisted in the US Navy at age 18 and became a pilot a year later. By the time he was 20, he had flown 58 combat missions, including one in which he was shot down and found himself floating in the ocean for hours before a submarine rescued him.

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Postwar, Bush could have stayed on the East Coast and followed his father to Wall Street. Instead, he became an oil wildcatter, moving his bride, Barbara, to a Quonset hut in Midland, Texas.

When he entered politics, Bush could have made his rise a lot easier if he had become a Democrat. Instead, he remained a Republican, adamant that Texas needed to become a two-party state. It did — but not before Democrats walloped him both times he ran for the Senate.

The graciousness? That appears most vividly in small incidents, when there could have been no doubt that he was simply being himself, not appealing to reporters or posing for the cameras.

Item: When his press secretary, Pete Teeley, walked me into the West Wing to tell Bush that he wanted to hire me as the then-vice president’s new speechwriter, I was a 25-year-old from a small town in upstate New York. Would Bush grill me about policy? Would he probe my knowledge of American history?

I was so nervous I hadn’t slept in two nights. Sensing my unease, Bush dispensed with questions. Instead, he looked down at my feet, slowly raised his gaze to my face, and said, “Looks about the right height. Let’s hope it works out.” And then he shook my hand.

I saw that pattern repeat itself dozens of times. George Bush, putting people at ease.

Item: The White House is an intensely hierarchical place, but Bush ignored the pecking order. If he was running behind schedule, he would step out of his office to apologize in person to anyone he was going to keep waiting.

If he needed to go over a speech in a motorcade, he would have the speechwriter climb right into his limousine with him — even when that meant that a senior member of the White House got kicked out.

Once I needed to discuss a speech with Bush immediately. He had me join him in the West Wing barbershop, where he had an appointment. Bush sat in the barber chair, I pulled up a stool and the barber went to work. Bush traded wisecracks with the barber and included him when we talked about the speech.

The US president, a barber and a young wordsmith — just three guys in a barbershop. George Bush made us equals.

Item: Nearly 30 years after I worked for Bush, I helped arrange for him to receive an honorary degree from my alma mater, Dartmouth College. The former president and Mrs. Bush would fly from their summer home in Maine to Hanover, NH, where Dartmouth is located.

The morning of the ceremony, which was to take place outdoors, the weather in Hanover turned frigid and windy. I started receiving texts from Jean Becker, the former president’s chief of staff.

Bush’s physician, she explained, had urged him to stay at home and indoors. Mrs. Bush sided with the physician — emphatically. In a third e-mail, Becker admitted that she, too, had advised her boss to stay home.

And then, just as I was about to tell administrators at Dartmouth that the Bushes would be unable to join us, Becker sent me one final text. The former president had considered everyone’s advice — and rejected it. He and Mrs. Bush would reach Hanover in an hour. “He doesn’t want to let people down,” Becker said.

Eighty-seven years old and confined to a wheelchair, George Bush would still rather have put himself out than let anyone down.

There are a hundred dissertations still to be written about the 41st president’s policies, but we already know what we need to know about his character. Graciousness and toughness. George Herbert Walker Bush displayed those attributes in equal measure. He was an American gentleman.

Peter Robinson, a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, served as chief speechwriter to Vice President George H.W. Bush.

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