President Bush’s handwritten note shows his touchBy WYATT EMMERICH,
Editor’s Note: I wrote this column when President George H.W. Bush spoke in Jackson in 2003. I am reprinting it upon his passing.
When President George Bush (the dad) was a young father of 30, he probably didn’t think he would one day seem to be one of the luckiest men in the world.
He and Barbara had just lost their three-year-old daughter Robin to leukemia. “That was 50 years ago,” Bush told a large group of Mississippians gathered at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Jackson to raise money to expand and improve Baptist Cancer Services.
Bush noted that if his girl had been born today, she would have gone on to live a long, productive life. That’s how much ground we’ve gained in our battle against cancer.
Any parent can only shudder to think the most horrible thought: that of losing a young child to cancer. At the time, the Bushes must have wondered why such a tragedy befell them. Surely their life at that point didn’t seem very blessed.
The experience left the Bush family with a commitment to do their part in the battle against cancer, the disease that strikes the most fear into the hearts of mankind.
Bush is chairman of the board of trustees of M.D. Anderson in Houston. M.D. Anderson is one of the premier cancer treatment centers in the country. The Baptist cancer center is affiliated with M.D. Anderson, which gives Baptist access to some of the best minds and technology.
In addition, President Bush is a longtime friend of the late Chesley Pruet of Jackson oil fame. His daughter Ann and husband Rick Calhoon are co-chairpersons of the Baptist cancer center fundraising effort. These connections made the Bush luncheon a natural.
I heard Bush speak on the steps of the Jackson capitol during his failed 1992 campaign. Of all the states, Mississippi gave Bush his widest victory margin, led by northeast Jackson and suburbs. You could argue that northeast Jackson is the most pro-Bush place in the whole country.
It is not surprising. Bush is a class act -- dignified, polite, deeply conservative, religious, committed. His politics mirror the politics of Jackson’s affluent class.
It was a joy to hear and see Bush at 80. I got the sense of a man who has seen it all, lost it all, and now can look back and reflect with perspective, humor and pride.
And there was a lot of humor. The elder Bush cracked dozens of one liners during the speech, keeping the laughter rolling. Most of the humor was self-deprecating jokes about his playing second fiddle to his wife and son.
Don’t you believe it. George Bush may be an ex-president but he’s an ex-president who happens to be the father of the current president. You can bet your bottom dollar he carries a heck of a lot of weight. His fervent denials about his influence reminds me of the old saying “methinks thou doth protesteth too much.”
Imagine. Not only being president, but having your son become president. That’s a pretty unbelievable accomplishment. And he has another son who is governor of one of the country’s most important states.
What’s impressive is the fact that this man, who is seemingly at the pinnacle of success both personally and as a father, had to overcome such setbacks. He admitted during his speech being gloomy and depressed following his loss to Bill Clinton in 1992. “It wasn’t so much accepting defeat personally as knowing I had let so many people down,” he told the crowd.
But, he noted, if he hadn’t lost in 1992, there was no way his son would now be president. And probably his other son Jeb would not be governor. God works in mysterious ways, he said.
Flying back from Florida on the night of Jeb’s victory, Bush said he could see the beautiful lights of New Orleans in the distance. Son George had also won the governorship of Texas by a landslide margin. He turned to Barbara and commented that this was the best day of his life, which he said she replied, “What about our wedding day?” Bush rolled his eyes and nodded to his wife and the Jackson crowd roared with laughter.
Barbara Bush introduced her husband. To no one’s surprise she emanated a sense of utter confidence, dignity, integrity and goodness. Like so many Americans, I have always admired her. As she aged, she had no need for plastic surgeons to give her a sense of self worth.
She told the crowd she was introducing a man who was still the greatest president ever, but with stiff competition.
Watching these two fine human beings was inspirational. At age 80, President Bush looks healthy and vigorous. His speech was sharp as a tack. He was a man on top of the world. Watching him can’t help but make you more upbeat about conquering personal adversity and old age.
What could be worse than losing a three-year-old child? What could be worse than rising to the top of the political charts and then freefalling in humiliating defeat to Slick Willie?
Bush’s life is a lesson to us all. No matter how successful we are, no matter what heights we attain, few people get through life without paying a steep price in tragedy and pain.