The passage of President George H.W. Bush might well be remembered for the passage of letter-writing. His death reminded America of his legacy of letters, many of them written to his children, others to political rivals, all reflecting love and devotion to country.
Writing letters has receded as people nowadays communicate via email and social media posts. The loss is substantial because our communications tend to be transactional instead of reflective. A deeper loss will be the absence of primary source material for historians to sift through to find the history behind the headlines.
Few tweets will go down in history unlike Bush’s letter to Bill Clinton, the man who defeated him in his 1992 re-election bid.
“You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck. George.”
The New York Times said Bush’s letter to Clinton cemented a presidential tradition in the graceful passage of power from one person to another, often to a person from an opposing political party. The letter exemplified, according to President George W. Bush, his father’s character: “Mission number one was the nation, not George H. W. Bush.”
Jenna Bush, his granddaughter who now works for NBC, shared private glimpses of Bush, many of them from frequent letters to his children and grandchildren. They underscored his love of family, especially when clustered around him at his revered Kennebunkport summer home.
Bush wrote letters instead of a memoir. His letters contained encouragement and life reflections. “If I shed tears easier now, try not to laugh at me, because I’ll lose more saline and that makes me feel like a sissy. And besides, it’s okay to cry if you’re a man, a happy man, me. All Bushes cry easily when we’re happy or counting our blessings or sad.”
The 41st President maintained a 25-year pen-pal relationship with a Gold Star mother in Florida whom he met and mourned with after the death of her Army Ranger son. She told reporters Bush empathized with her loss as a World War II pilot who lost buddies and a father who lost a child.
Michael Tackett of the New York Times wrote, “Mr. Bush favored the handwritten letter. He wrote them by the hundreds to family, friends, critics, colleagues and contemporaries. To read them is to take in a brief history of the second half of the 20th century – stories of war and peace, victory and defeat, musings on culture and sports, and expressions of deeply personal sentiments.”
Like many prominent individuals, Bush struggled in public to express his emotions and innermost feelings. As Tackett noted, he often mangled his syntax when speaking. But his writings provide a keen, behind-the-scenes view of significant historical events from World War II to the fall of the Soviet Union.
Bush’s letters put history into human perspective. Savoring a Coke during intense pilot training, conveying a presidential agenda (“Jobs, peace, education”) and consoling a reporter who criticized him when she was diagnosed with cancer.
Face-to-face interaction may be best. When that isn’t possible, letters aren’t a bad substitute, especially when handwritten and heartfelt.
Bush’s letters have been compiled in “All the Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings.”