George H.W. Bush’s secret legacy: his little-known kind gestures to many

With the death of President George H.W. Bush, Americans are being deluged with ex post facto praise from the media that so often made fun of the wimp during his four White House years.

Bush had quite a consequential presidency, calmly presiding over the peaceful end of the Cold War and German reunification and, among other things, assembling with quiet determination the international coalition that rescued Kuwait from Iraq’s invasion.

But the lasting impact of this genteel man is not likely ever to be fully appreciated beyond the countless individuals whose lives he touched in profoundly kind and personal ways.

There was Patrick, a Secret Service agent’s two-year-old son in treatment for leukemia, the disease that claimed Robin, the Bushes’ three-year-old daughter. The former president shaved his head in solidarity with Patrick.

Then there was little Bill Walberg. He was a six-year-old elementary school student near San Francisco in 1992. He’d heard his parents talk about the president and voting that fall. Bush’s reelection bid fell short on Nov. 3, victim to the angry, vote-draining third-party effort of fellow Texan Ross Perot and the professed centrist policies of that fresh-faced Bill Clinton from Arkansas.

Bill Walberg felt sorry for President Bush. So he hand-printed the commander-in-chief a little letter of childhood sorrow and support, which his parents dutifully mailed off. That was that.

Until the day not long after when the little boy returned from school to find a White House envelope addressed to him. It was a note, not in cursive, but hand printed for the first-grader to read. The president of the United States wanted to thank the little boy for his concern and reassure him that the defeated president was doing fine.

Handwritten, personal notes were a trademark of both George and Barbara Bush, a habit they passed on to George W. and Laura Bush.

Many volunteers, myself included, helped Laura Bush as she campaigned for her husband in 1999 and 2000. As the plane took off for the next stop, it was my job to hand her a list of everyone who’d helped at the last one. She wrote each one a thank-you, which had to be mailed within 24 hours.

For Bill Walberg, the impact of that personal missive was lasting. Intrigued by politics, he ran for and became eighth-grade class president. In college, he was elected a student senator and went on to become an attorney.

Like him, I too was struck by Bush’s grace in defeat. Years later, I would ask him about that. Bush is the last combat veteran to serve as commander in chief. Not coincidentally, he’s among the first to display humility.

One recent candidate claimed she was the best prepared ever to become president.

Not really.

At 19, about the time I was born, George H.W. Bush became the youngest naval aviator ever. Still sporting pimples, he flew TBF Avenger torpedo bombers against Japanese targets from aircraft carriers.

Today’s attack planes launch smart bombs from miles away, guiding them to precise targets on laser beams. Not so with torpedo bombers. Near water level, they flew straight at targets until dropping their torpedo at the last second and flying directly over the guns firing back.

Bush flew 58 of those missions, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. Shot down on one, he was rescued by a U.S. submarine.

In civilian life, Bush began a 73-year marriage with Barbara. They had six children, lost one to leukemia and ended with 14 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. He founded an oil business in Texas and lost two Senate races.

Then began his decades of public service. Bush was twice elected to the House of Representatives. Presidents appointed him to serve as ambassador to the United Nations, as chairman of the Republican National Committee and as the U.S. representative to Beijing.

Then he became director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Ronald Reagan’s vice president for eight years.

I spent a little time with the former president as he campaigned for his son in 1999. He seemed much taller in person and was perhaps the most unaffected public figure I’ve ever met.

Backstage at a Saturday New Hampshire rally, he talked casually. The 75-year-old dad was glowing with pride watching George W. speak to the crowd. I mentioned the same admiration as Bill Walberg for his grace after the 1992 defeat.

He shrugged. If you did all you can as hard as you can, he said, there’s no shame.

I nodded. Then he turned back. You know, he added, two weeks before the election I found out we were going to lose.

I was stunned. What? How did you even get up every morning?

Well, he said, in politics you never know what might happen. And I had a duty to the country and office, the party, the campaign, myself. Then it was his turn onstage.

President Bush has left the earthly stage now. We’ll hear much more about the public life of 41 these days, even his taste for wild socks. But I’m pretty certain it was the thousands of lives he touched personally that in the end matter most.

Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.