Nothing was too small, too personal or too easily overlooked to merit a handwritten thank-you letter from George H.W. Bush, who died late on Friday at 94.
To the Marine who dropped his rifle in a parade at the Marine Barracks, in front of his commander in chief and first lady Barbara Bush, Bush wrote: “I want to thank you and the others in the platoon for a super performance... Please thank all involved in the drill.”
To his granddaughter, on the day she was born: “I am a happy Gampy because you’re here.”
Bush was one of the modern era’s great letter-writers. This old-fashioned virtue became his hallmark, an endearing practice and a pragmatic one as he fostered warm connections with world leaders, potential allies and even his opponents. He knew that compassion and kind manners help a person establish strong and positive connections with others. He held dear the core diplomatic belief that a leader should make friends, not enemies. And that leadership and civility are mutually reinforcing.
When former president Jimmy Carter wrote in a statement Saturday that Bush’s “administration was marked by grace, civility and social conscience,” we can look to the former president’s thank-you notes as evidence.
In them, it’s also clear how politicians’ behaviour has coarsened since his time. Both Bush and Donald Trump grew up in East Coast families of extreme wealth. Both pivoted from CEO to the White House (though Bush’s resume was filled with other moves along the way). Yet Bush espoused an entirely different view of himself and how he wished to be seen. It carried over into how he wanted the country to be seen. Throughout his letters are traces of the “kinder and gentler nation” he called for in his inaugural address — not just traces, but one man’s steps in that direction, by turns firm, tender and heartfelt.
“I felt the Bush tears (we do cry a lot) coming on,” the president wrote to Mike Deland, a leader in the disabilities movement, after he signed the Americans With Disabilities Act into law. As he looked out at the audience that day, he wrote Deland, he felt “tears of gratitude for your example, for your cheerful way and for your being at my side.”
He carved out time most evenings to write cards and thank-you notes. He wrote so many that they fill a 700-page book, ‘All the Best, George Bush,’ which serves as his memoir. Bush found the idea of writing about himself distasteful. Modesty was ingrained in him, a legacy of his moneyed Connecticut upbringing with its emphasis on self-restraint and good manners. That’s also at the root of his thousands of thank yous and other notes he popped in the mail throughout his long career.
It was also good politics.
“Countless times he would send a congratulatory note to a foreign leader for a seemingly innocuous achievement. I came to understand that he was building a relationship, which served him well when he needed to ask that leader to do something hard,” wrote Condoleezza Rice, who had served as an adviser to Bush on Soviet and Eastern European affairs. “Even I frequently received a thank-you note from the President for a job well done, and this kindness and courtesy made it a joy to work with him.”
In a pragmatic vein, Bush wrote to his personal secretary, Patty Presock, soon after taking office about his burial instructions. He requested the hymn ‘Last Full Measure of Devotion’ sung by “a good male soloist,” and a plain stone at Arlington National Cemetery, with his Navy number on it and the words: “He loved Barbara very much.”
Among the many thank-yous Bush wrote in his final days as president, one to former president Richard Nixon stands out: “I want to thank you for your kind words... I want to finish the course with no rancour, not blaming of others.” He ended the note by writing that as he contemplates how to live a private life, Nixon’s example “will serve as a fine example of how to do it.”
With such an affinity for elegant and creative self-expression, is it a surprise that Bush also was the most frequent presidential audience member at the Kennedy Center? According to Tiki Davies, who logged three decades in the Kennedy Center’s press office, Bush came to shows more often than any president she knew, and his wife was a fixture at the now-defunct Thursday matinees going back to when he was vice president.
Arts and entertainment figure into his letters: Bush exchanged poems through the mail with a cousin. He wrote to Goldie Hawn after sitting next to her at a dinner, thanking her for taking his mind off Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He wrote to the actor Chevy Chase, thanking him for a briefcase Chase and fellow actor and friend Dan Akroyd had sent him. Chase wrote back, and Bush wrote him again:
“I hate the issues that divide, and I hope you and I will always be able to see the other guy’s point of view.” He finished with more warmth toward “the Chevy Chase whose name he was freely dropping (even though he is a damned Democrat!) Sincerely, George Bush.”
Bush also kept a diary, dictating into a tape recorder.
The night he lost his bid for reelection, Bush made a diary entry to help himself get past the pain of defeat. He set out a to-do list of sorts, goals on how to behave in the coming days. Among them: “Comfort the ones I’ve hurt and let down.”
“Be strong, be kind, be generous of spirit, be understanding,” Bush continued, “and let people know how grateful you are.”