Life is filled with ups and downs. President George Herbert Walker Bush provided us with the quintessential example of how best to handle the downs. That a man who achieved the greatest heights of service in the United States would be the one to show us how we can approach the setbacks and losses in our own lives is extraordinary.
Bush, our 41st president, died on Friday at the age of 94. I’m writing these words on Wednesday, as the nation’s top dignitaries and others are beginning to enter the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. for his funeral.
There are many examples of Bush’s grace, humility and decency, but for me the ones that come to mind pertain to how he handled defeat.
As we all know, Bush lost a bitter battle for the presidency against Bill Clinton in 1992. It was a brutal loss – a denial of a second term in the Oval Office; a fall from approval ratings in the 90s following the successful prosecution of the Gulf War just one year earlier; a rebuke from the American people, who felt he could not relate to their struggles during a time of economic strife.
After his loss, however, Bush did three things – things that might have come naturally to him but do not necessarily come so naturally to most others. In this he was extraordinary.
First, he invited Dana Carvey to the Christmas party he held at the White House for his staff that December. His staffers, of course, were experiencing low morale, preparing to leave their jobs four years earlier than they had hoped. At the time, Carvey was a cast member of “Saturday Night Live,” a comedian with a gift for mimicry who did uproarious impersonations of President Bush. As Bush, Carvey would speak in a high voice, wave his arms around, and mangle the English language – going so far as to condensing “not going to do it,” something Bush apparently once said, to “na ga da.” Bush invited Carvey to the Christmas party to delight his staff with his impersonation of him.
How many presidents of the United States would do that, especially after suffering such a devastating, high-profile loss? Let’s take that question even further. How many bosses, how many managers, would invite their staffs to openly have a good laugh at their expense? President Bush could laugh at himself. That’s character.
Second, Bush wrote a letter to President Clinton and left it for him to find on the desk in the Oval Office upon his return from his inauguration. Media coverage has highlighted this gracious, upbeat and supportive letter in the past week.
“I wish you great happiness here,” Bush wrote. “Your success is now our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”
Bush addressed the letter to “Bill” and signed it “George.” Ever since, letters from outgoing presidents to incoming ones are now a tradition – an added touch to the peaceful transfers of power that our nation has known since its beginning.
Third, in the years that followed, Bush developed a close friendship with Clinton. They worked together on humanitarian projects during global crises and socialized in their personal time. Their friendship survived the tumult and partisanship of our national politics, which in the long years following their presidencies have included the campaigns of members in both of their families.
In these three examples, President George Herbert Walker Bush showed us what is best for our country and what is best for the heart. Quite a legacy.
Shawn P. Sullivan is an award-winning columnist and the author of “Islands in the Chaotic Ocean of Life,” a memoir that is available online at Amazon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.