A friend recently said, “I cannot read another column comparing George Bush to Donald Trump.” We took that advice, and are simply remembering the more admirable qualities of the 41st president, who died last week at age 94. Any comparison to the 45th president is purely accidental.
Start with one of George Herbert Walker Bush’s most endearing traits: the ability to laugh at himself. During his four years as president, he was regularly lampooned by comedian Dana Carvey on “Saturday Night Live,” and the portrait was not always flattering.
“In Carvey’s rendering,” wrote Travis M. Andrews in The Washington Post, “Bush was a little more weird, a little more out of control with his hands, a little more prone to inexplicable, staccato phraseology.”
In one memorable episode, Carvey-as-Bush was recounting the contributions made by other nations to the military action that expelled Iraqi troops from Kuwait. “From Mexico, salsa,” boasted Carvey. “Chunky style. Makes you hungry.”
Yet Bush appeared on “SNL,” taping a segment in which he chided Carvey for his portrayal. “George Bush here,” said the president. “I’m watching you do your impression of me, and I gotta say, it’s nothing like me. Bears no resemblance. It’s bad. It’s bad.” The “it’s bad” line was a favorite trope of Carvey-as-Bush -- as every listener well knew.
In fact, after Bush’s stinging defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton in 1992, the lame duck president invited Carvey to a Christmas party for his White House staff. The announcer intoned to the large crowd, “The President of the United States,” and in walked Carvey to thunderous applause.
The comic joked that he had spent the previous night in the Lincoln bedroom, and had used his impression of the president to call the Secret Service and say, “Feel like going jogging tonight. In the nude. Fully unclothed.”
The audience rocked with laughter, including the president, who had slipped into the rear of the room. When Bush himself took the podium he said, “Dana has given me a lot of laughs, and the fact that we can laugh at each other is a very fundamental thing.”
“SNL” repaid the tribute after Bush’s death, as cast member Colin Jost introduced a montage of Carvey-as-Bush skits by describing the late president as “a warm and gracious man who always understood the power in being able to laugh at yourself.”
That understanding had a larger meaning. It said something profound about Bush’s character, his impulse to think of others and not just himself, to place empathy before ego. And that virtue showed itself in his lifelong habit of writing notes to people expressing grief and gratitude, joy and sorrow.
Cokie treasures two such missives. One from 2013 expresses condolences at the death of her mother, Lindy Boggs. “Barbara and I are checking in to let you know we’re thinking of you,” he wrote. “Your Mom was a great American and a great lady, and we mourn her passing.”
By then, Bush’s maladies had deprived him of the ability to write by hand, his preferred form of communication, so the letter was typed. But the signature was his: “G. Bush.”
The president was well-known for his love of colorful socks, and for Christmas in 2015, Cokie sent him a pair from the National Archives store emblazoned with the famous World War II poster, “Uncle Sam Needs You.” He wrote back a few days into the New Year: “I loved the Uncle Sam socks ... How thoughtful of you. Life is good for the Bushes and I hope the same is true for you and yours.”
Life was indeed good for the Bushes. George and his wife, Barbara, were married for 73 years before her death last April -- by far the longest marriage of any American president -- and it’s no accident that he referred to her and his family in both of his notes. They were an integral part of his identity, as Cokie learned when she interviewed the former president some years after he left office.
When she said first ladies are often “unsung heroes,” Bush 41 replied with enormous affection about his wife, “She’s sung. And you know what the boys call her? The Enforcer. Even the president calls her that.” Barbara upbraided him, he admitted, for his infamous denunciation of broccoli, but he added mischievously that his stance against the vegetable had “liberated every 4-year-old.”
So yes, George Herbert Walker Bush could laugh at himself. And no, we didn’t write an anti-Trump column. Or did we?