Following our better angels

Joseph Whited

I had the opportunity to meet President Bush only once, it was at a reception before a dinner where he was being honored along with other leaders, long after his term in office. He was at that time beginning to have trouble walking but with the help of a cane and a firm handed aide he made his way around the room greeting everyone with a warm smile, handshake, and a hello or good to see you. Later that evening, on the stage, there was the same man, the same voice, I remembered from television as a kid. It was the voice and unruffled demeanor that led this country and the world through the end of the Cold War and built a coalition to evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Seminal events of my childhood, which spurred my own interest in international affairs and led me to follow in President Bush’s footsteps, joining the Navy right after high school.

Since his passing I’ve talked with a few of our neighbors here in Rappahannock who worked with President Bush and their observations bear out all that we have heard in the news over the last week. When asked for a single word that would describe him, the responses were “service” and “exemplar.” Judd Swift, who served as the head of White House Advance, the folks who coordinate all of the President’s travel, said that President Bush noted again and again that their job was to serve the public. At his core he embodied and earnestly believed in the biblical injunction “those to whom much is given from them much is expected.” Jim Miller, who worked closely with then Vice President Bush in the early years of the Reagan administration referred to George Bush as an “exemplar.” Jim went on to say “he was what we all should strive to be: principled, skilled, brave, loyal, and trustworthy.”

I would add to these observations, what President Bush represented to a farm boy just beginning to perceive the role of United States in the world and his own responsibility to his community, friends, and neighbors. George Herbert Walker Bush represented all that he should want to be, a friend to those who wished him good and ill, a thoughtful one could even say “prudent” statesman, a man who put duty and country before self, even when doing so threatened his own aspirations. All of us are mixed bags, we have good attributes and bad, but George Bush showed us that by aspiring to always follow our better angels, to put others before ourselves, we can and will transform ourselves, our communities, and indeed the world.

The night I met President Bush, he led off his remarks by observing the fact that his wife was unable to join us. He said “you know everywhere I go people always ask me where’s Barbara, where’s Barbara” and his response, “Well, what about me, what about me, I was President?” We of course all laughed. We laughed in part because we knew that George Bush was the last person to suggest that he was more important than anyone else, no matter their job, rank, or position. Today, I’d like to think I have the answer to the question “where’s Barbara?” She is right there beside him under an eternally CAVU sky.

Fairwinds and following seas Mr. President.

A resident of Washington, the writer recently won election to serve on the Town Council.

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