Tom Rosshirt, a friend of mine, was a White House speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. Last year, he wrote a wonderful piece about being on a long plane ride over the Pacific on Air Force One, during which he struck up a conversation with one of the plane’s navigators.
After asking the navigator, a seasoned veteran on the Air Force One crew, questions about his job and the plane, Tom asked directly which president he liked best. This was his answer:
“Oh, President Bush,” he said. “He was phenomenal. He took a deep personal interest in each of us and our families. When we flew the presidents to Israel for Prime Minister (Yitzhak) Rabin’s funeral, he came up to see us in the flight deck and asked about our children by name.”
As Rosshirt reminded us, that trip was in November 1995, almost three years after President George H.W. Bush had left the White House.
Some 42 years earlier, George and Barbara Bush were young parents living in Midland, Texas, when their 3-year-old daughter, Robin, was diagnosed with leukemia. Barbara Bush went to New York to spend each day with Robin, who was being treated at Sloan-Kettering, where the doctors gave her an experimental drug that seemed to drive the deadly disease into remission. George stayed in Texas as the single dad to their two boys during the week and would then fly up to New York to be with Robin and Barbara on the weekend.
As Richard Ben Cramer told us in his brilliant What It Takes, the doctors wanted permission to operate in hopes of stopping the little girl’s internal bleeding, and Barbara Bush, holding out hope against hope, “gave the go-ahead, and the surgeons went to work. But Robin never came out of the operation. George was there that night when Robin died. She was two months short of her fourth birthday.”
The day after Robin Bush died, “it was George who went to the hospital to thank everybody who had worked on his child.” You can call it decency or noblesse oblige, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But to me, it was just about character and genuine class.
We all had a chance to see another example of character last week, with a picture of the former U.S. president, now 89, with his newly shaved head affectionately holding a nearly hairless 2-year-old Patrick in his lap. Patrick, whose father is one of the Secret Service agents in Bush’s detail, has lost his hair as a result of the treatments for leukemia he is undergoing. All of the other Secret Service agents, to express their solidarity with Patrick, had shaved their own heads.
When Bush saw what the agents had done, he simply asked one of the agents to take the razor to his presidential head in the hope that his action might provide some comfort to Patrick’s family.
It was a very human thing to do, and it’s a good bet that the last time Bush had his head shaved was as an 18-year-old enlistee shortly after Pearl Harbor, before he became the U.S. Navy’s youngest pilot in World War II.
When the news is about baseball players and drugs, sexting politicians and worse, President George H.W. Bush, a thoughtful and decent man, shows us what it means to be a genuine class act.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.