A few years ago, I was at the Hobby Center for a play. Just before the play, as the house lights were being lowered and the crowd was settling in for the performance, a door opened on the left side of the theater about halfway down the seating area. Because it was lighter outside, a shaft of light shot into the room drawing everyone’s eyes to it. Through the open door stepped the former Commander-in-Chief and First Lady. Without any formal announcement of their entry, the crowd simultaneously and spontaneous rose for a standing ovation that went on for several minutes. I noticed many in the audience wiping away tears. I still get a lump in my throat recalling that night.
What was it about the Bushes that evoked this kind of admiration and affection from the people, many of whom they had never met? It was, of course, many things but I believe it was mostly their fundamental authenticity and decency, two qualities we so sorely lack in our civic life today. Both of them were down-to-earth, self-deprecating, warm and friendly to those they encountered. For a while I lived in same neighborhood as the Bushes and would, on occasion, get the chance to visit with Mrs. Bush. She was always cordial and more than willing to chat. It was like talking to one of my own family members.
What is even more unique about them was that they carried those qualities into their public life. Don’t get me wrong, President Bush was a passionate partisan and could throw some sharp elbows in a campaign. But when the campaign was over, he always put his country over his party. Probably no better proof of this was his post-Presidential relationship with Bill Clinton. Notwithstanding a bruising election in 1992, Bush left a handwritten letter to the incoming President which closed with this:
“You will be our President . . . Your success is now our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”
That can only be described as incredible grace and equanimity, and most of all, a deep abiding love for his country. By all accounts, in subsequent years, Clinton frequently reached out to Bush for advice. Their relationship became so close that many felt that Bush became the surrogate father Clinton never had.
I had a friend ask me in the last few days if our country will ever elect candidates with these qualities again. The answer is simple. We will when we start voting for candidates with these qualities. Character and integrity matter. It matters more than a candidate’s position on particular issues. It matters more than partisan loyalty. If we want more elected officials like President Bush, then we need to vote for candidates like him.
Bill Clinton once said, “There is something about George Bush that makes you want to be a better man.” My hope is that the recollection of this extraordinary life of service we have all experienced over the last week will make us all want to be better men and women and in doing so, we continue to make this a better country.