“Silent night… Holy night.”
It was well after 1AM when I got a chance to say a final good-bye to George H. W. Bush.
The stars were out when I entered the Capitol building, part of a seemingly endless line of Americans who came to pay their respects to the 41st President of the United States.
We walked down the otherwise deserted halls — the noise of legislating replaced with a meaningful quiet.
One by one, we entered the room beneath the great white Capitol dome and passed by the flag-draped coffin surrounded by a military honor guard. Like many who would come before and after me throughout the night and the following day, I paused to pray… and to remember.
“Silent night….Holy night…. All is calm…. All is bright.” Those were the words to his favorite Christmas carol, the one that was sung shortly before he passed away at his home in Houston, Texas surrounded by family and friends.
He died peacefully and with grace at the age of 94 — the closing act of a life well-lived.
“Silent night… Holy night.”
That image of former President Bush in his last moments was with me as I left the Capitol Building… But another soon took its place. My mind went back to a December night 30 years ago — back to a Christmas party then-president-elect George H. W. Bush hosted for the reporters who had covered his campaign from start to finish.
That evening, we sang “Silent Night” around a grand piano, drank too much eggnog, and shared stories of our months together on the road.
At one point, I found myself standing next to Mr. Bush and asked him a question: “If you could look into a crystal ball and predict the future, what would you see?”
Without missing a beat he replied “Hungary… I think something is going to happen in Hungary… in Eastern Europe.”
It was a private party… I could not use the quote in a news story. But it came back to me not long into his presidency when I watch him guide the United States through the demise of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War.
Some would say his response to major world events was too subdued. He called it “prudent.” It was just his way of doing business — a measured reaction in public, while bringing people together and building coalitions behind the scenes.
Unlike Ronald Reagan who came before and Bill Clinton who followed him in office, President George H. W. Bush was not a natural showman or story teller. No one would ever call him “the great communicator” as they did Reagan. That was not his style.
Ask those who worked with him, covered him as a reporter, or whose lives simply intersected with him in one way or another to describe the 41st president and the word you are most likely to hear is “decent.”
For me, that meant making a new reporter on the White House beat feel like she had been there forever. He called me “Red” (a reference to my hair color)… and impressed on me just how important it is for a leader to treasure all freedoms — including the freedom of the press.
He wasn’t perfect, but then again, none of us are. And while he held a high respect for the office of the presidency, George H.W. Bush always kept his ego in check. It was never about him.
Maybe that was why he got along with the media so well on a personal level. He might not have liked certain stories that we wrote or broadcast and from time to time his temper would flare. But every night when he left the Oval Office to walk down the covered walkway to the White House residence, he had a bit of a ritual.
There was a door right off the press briefing room with glass panes that looked out on his path. Most nights, a few reporters would wait there for a glimpse of the president as he went “home.” We would catch his eye as he sauntered by with his briefcase in hand and almost invariably he would stop and chat about personal stuff — our families, how we were doing. It was like catching up with a neighbor at the end of the day, except this neighbor just happened to be the President of the United States.
It was a different time and a different era. And perhaps that is the reason why his death hit so hard.
With the passing of George H. W. Bush, I realized that the era of my parents was coming to a close.
He was the last member of the generation that fought World War Two to serve as our president. His notion of a “kinder, gentler” nation seems quaint to some now, but many would say his values of faith, family, and service are actually needed today more than ever.
President Bush held the highest office in the land before the days of smartphones and social media. He didn’t have twitter, but he did have a pen and he loved to write letters.
Among all those letters, there is a personal note that is close to my heart and it speaks volumes about the 41st president.
One of my colleagues in the Bush press corps was Ann Devroy, who covered the White House for the Washington Post. There was no one tougher on the beat and from time to time, the president would complain about one story or another that she had written. But when he learned in 1996 — four years after leaving office — that she was battling cancer, he wrote her a letter of encouragement:
“… there was a tension; perhaps an inevitable tension that clouded things between us – never a visceral dislike, but a tension… Strangely, wonderfully, I feel close to you now. I want you to win this battle. I want the same toughness that angered me and frustrated me to a fare-thee-well at times to see you through the fight.”
President Bush included the message to Ann in a collection of his letters released in book form in 1999. The thick volume is called “All the Best, George Bush” and it says more about the man and his time than any autobiography ever could.
Many of the letters were written to family and friends, most notably his best buddy, James Baker.
Baker stopped by to see the former president — whose health had rapidly deteriorated — early on the day he died.
At that point, Mr. Bush seemed to be rallying a bit. He looked at Baker and said “Jim, where are we going?”
“We’re going to heaven,” his friend of 60 years replied.
“That is where I want to go,” the former president said.
And so he did.
As the old Christmas carol goes:
“… Sleep in heavenly peace… Sleep in heavenly peace.”