- As the American family has crumbled over the past few decades, President Bush emerged as a sort of American father figure, the platonic ideal of a loving and committed husband and family man. Tweet This
- President George H.W. Bush was known for his capacity for friendship, for his manners, and for his kindness—hardly virtues we associate with the world of politics, especially today. Tweet This
Among the many moving images that came out of yesterday’s state funeral for former U.S. President George H. W. Bush, one stood out: each of his children, lined up with their spouses, with their hands over their hearts before his casket. It was a poignant reminder that while many will rightly reflect upon and tally his seemingly endless list of military and civic accomplishments, his legacy as a husband and father is as extraordinary.
Indeed, as the American family has crumbled over the past few decades, President Bush emerged as a sort of American father figure, the platonic ideal of a loving and committed husband and family man. His 73-year marriage to Barbara has been called “storybook,” and her recent passing offered the nation the chance to reflect on what made their bond so special. And while their marriage certainly endured challenges—the death of a child, a severe bout of depression for Barbara, and the strains of public life—it was tethered to a deep-seated faith. George and Barbara revealed that they prayed together every night, sometimes fighting over whose turn it was.
George embraced his role as husband, saying once, “I have climbed perhaps the highest mountain in the world, but even that cannot hold a candle to being Barbara’s husband.” Together, they built an extraordinary family of six children, with one son going on to serve two terms as president and another two terms as governor of Florida.
He also embraced his role as a father. His children always speak with deep respect and reverence for their dad. In a 60-Minutes interview that aired after his death, his son, the 43rd president, George W. Bush, said, “He gave us unconditional love.” When asked what his father said to him when he became president, Bush said his father said, “I love you.”
“And, you know, as corny as that sounds to some,” he continued, “it is the most important words you can hear in life.”
Bush returned to that theme in his eulogy yesterday. His final words to his father were, "Dad, I love you, and you've been a wonderful father." He also said that the last words his father ever said on earth were, "I love you, too."
He also mentioned that President H.W. Bush was a father-figure to many, including in his unlikely friendship with former President Bill Clinton, who wrote in the Washington Post of Bush, “His friendship has been one of the great gifts of my life.”
A devoted husband, father, and friend, President Bush senior embodied a kind of masculine virtue that is increasingly rare. In a video that went viral after his death, he addressed the challenge that he was “too nice” to be president. He retorted unflinchingly:
I equate toughness with moral fiber, with character, with principle, with demonstrated leadership in tough jobs where you emerge not bullying somebody, but with the respect of the people you led. That’s toughness. That’s fiber. That’s character. I have got it. And if I happen to be decent in the process, that should not be a liability.
In an era where masculinity today is so often associated with aggression, with abuse of power, and with swagger, the death of our 41st president offers an opportunity to look differently at what it means to be a man. President Bush was known for his capacity for friendship, for his manners, and for his kindness—hardly virtues we associate with the world of politics, especially today.
As President George W. Bush put it in his eulogy for his father,
“Dad could relate to people from all walks of life. He was an empathetic man. He valued character over pedigree. And he was no cynic. He looked for the good in each person— and usually found it.”
Now it is America’s turn to look to the good in him as our example for the future, and there is much of it to be found in President George H.W. Bush.
*Photo credit: Joyce N. Boghosian, White House Photo Office