BLOG #17 SERIES #9
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
FIRST LADY OF THE GREATEST GENERATION
APRIL 25, 2018
Scott Olson, Getty Images file
What a celebration of a life! Barbara Pierce Bush, the wife of George Herbert Walker Bush, 41st President of the United States, was laid to rest on Saturday, April 22, 2018.
Thanks to the miracle of television, my wife and I had ring-side seats for the celebration of a remarkable life. But even before her passing, the incredible outpouring of love and appreciation had already begun. It is still ongoing. But the high-point had to be that funeral service in Houston’s magnificent St. Martin’s Episcopal Church. Presidents have died with much less fanfare and outpourings of love and respect than we have been experiencing.
When Connie and I were discussing the week’s events and all this attention given a non-elected public figure, we could come up with only one reason: All of us, through her, are mourning what we have lost: a caring, kind, decent, loving, faithful, courteous, empathetic, civil, spiritual, ethical, humble, principled, self-sacrificing, patriotic, altruistic, conciliatory, family-centered, and hard-working world that spawned what we have come to call “the Greatest Generation.”
A world where marriage was not a mere tack-on after years of living together, but a sacred and longed-for high-point after a magical period called “courtship”—a far cry from today’s hook-up throw-away relationships. How well I remember my father’s life-long courtship of my mother. When he passed, as we sifted through their memory boxes, the love-letters he wrote in her annual Valentine’s Day cards down through the years were so intense we felt we had no business intruding into such a holy place. That’s why I related so strongly to a brief but poignant side-bar carried by newspapers across the nation this week: a young man is about to be sent into war, with no guarantee he’ll ever see his lovely fiancee again. And he writes these words to her, on December 12, 1943:
As the days go by the time of our departure grows nearer. For a long time I had anxiously looked forward to the day when we would go aboard and set to sea. It seemed that obtaining that goal would be all I could desire for some time, but, Bar, you have changed all that. . . . Even now, with a good while between us and the sea, I am thinking of getting back. This may sound melodramatic, but if it does it is only my inadequacy to say what I mean. But, you have made my life full of everything I could ever dream of—my complete happiness would be a token of my love for you…. Goodnite, my beautiful. Everytime I say beautiful you about kill me but you’ll have to accept it—
All of us realize full-well that for two people to stay together for a lifetime, the odds against it are staggering, especially given our longevity today, and the many others we care for deeply, cherish, and love who come into our lives. But my parents’ generation tried their best to make it work, just as George and Barbara Bush did. Today, the media mocks and devalues marriage—if anything, they celebrate out of wedlock sexual relationships more than they do marital ones.
A couple of years ago, on a cruise ship, several of us were celebrating a Golden Wedding Anniversary of one of the couples. After we’d sung “Happy Anniversary” to them, our maitre d’ came over and asked how many years they’d been married. When told that we were celebrating their4 50th wedding anniversary, the look on his face was priceless. It was as though we’d told him they’d just returned from the moon.! After a long sigh, he said, ‘Oh my! Such a thing will never happen to me. . . or any of my crowd.” And George and Barbara Bush had been married 73 years!
All of us have been mourning the loss of such a role model, because we don’t produce many like her any more. Let’s listen in to Carl Rove. In his April 19 Wall Street Journal tribute, “Heaven, Get Ready for Barbara Bush.” Here are some of the things he said:
The sad news came Tuesday while I was on my way to dinner with a friend. A noble life of purpose had ended. Barbara Bush had passed at age 92.
Naturally, the table conversation revolved around this remarkable woman. As the evening wound down, an email arrived, an invitation to the Service of Celebration and Thanksgiving Saturday at 11. Will you be coming? The missive reflected Mrs. Bush’s personality: prepared, prompt, direct and thoughtful.
The email also had a picture of Mrs. Bush: grey hair, eyes crinkly and welcoming, the soft smile that bespoke kindness and great joy—and pearls, three strands of them, elegant but understated. You could almost hear her explaining the rapid notice: Well, of course. People are busy and we want our friends to know so they can come if they can. It’s the right thing to do.
When we think of the Greatest Generation, martial virtues often spring to mind—young men in an unimaginably violent struggle, saving the civilized world. Men like George H.W. Bush, who joined the Navy on his 18th birthday to serve as a torpedo bomber pilot and was later shot down over the Pacific.
But there was another, no less admirable part of that generation, epitomized by Mrs. Bush. The two met at a Christmas party, she 16 in a green and red holiday dress and he a year older. Because he couldn’t waltz, they sat and talked and fell in love.
Strong, smart and outspoken, Mrs. Bush was her husband’s indispensable partner when the war ended and it was time for life to begin anew. All that he achieved in their extraordinary life together was possible only because of her wisdom, unceasing love, bracing candor and sturdy values.
Her loyalty brought out the best in everyone around them. I first met Mrs. Bush when I was 22 and working for her husband, then Republican National Committee chairman. Decades later, toiling for her son at the White House, I was still nervous whether she felt I was giving it my best.
Long before she said as first lady, “What happens in your house is more important than what happens in the White House,” Mrs. Bush focused on what was happening in her house. The children she raised are testimony to a mother who taught respect, integrity, hard work, and faith and gave unconditional love.
For Mrs. Bush, the right thing always involved service to others. Her most visible cause was literacy. She inspired millions to provide a window to a larger world of imagination, knowledge and beauty by helping someone learn to read.
There was another cause, more private at first because it was deeply personal. After losing their first daughter, Robin, to leukemia at age 3—a wound handled with grace but never fully recovered from—the Bushes made defeating cancer a central focus of their lives.
One memory: As first lady in 1989, she visited a hospital and cradled an AIDS baby in her arms. That may not seem like much now, but at the time, some people mistakenly thought the deadly disease was transmitted by contact. No matter; she saw a child of God in need of being held and comforted.
In her passing, no person has suffered a greater loss than her husband. Bush men have a way of marrying formidable women. That was the case with President Bush 41’s father, Sen. Prescott Bush. When his wife and 41’s mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, died in 1992, the then-president wrote his brother Jonathan to thank him for a tribute he’d made at the funeral, saying, “Our compass is spinning a little.”
Today in Houston, George H. W. Bush’s compass is spinning a lot. He has lost the love of his life and his wife of 73 years. May the God of tender mercies bless and comfort him, the remarkable children he and his wife brought into this world, and the many grandchildren whom they loved and enjoyed so deeply.
I shall continue discussing Bushes and the Greatest Generation on May 9.