George H.W. Bush wasn’t born in Texas, as the saying goes, but he got here as soon as he graduated from Yale. Over the next seven decades, he left an imprint on the Lone Star State that is matched by only a few. His legacy, however, may be defined as much by his quiet acts of generosity as by any grandiose act of statesmanship. Here, five Texans reflect on the man they once knew.
Mark McKinnon, political advisor and the co-creator of Showtime’s The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth
When I received an invitation twelve years ago from President George H.W. Bush to join his family for dinner at their compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, I was honored and thrilled. But then I got a little nervous that I might not know all the appropriate etiquette. So I asked my chief protocol officer, my wife Annie, for advice.
After a quick rundown of correct attire, which fork to use when, and a reminder to take my damn hat off as soon as I crossed the threshold indoors, she paused and said, “I’ve got a hunch. You better learn a blessing.” And, good Catholic girl that she is, she helped me memorize an appropriate prayer.
Her thinking was that I might be asked to do the honors because in some households it’s tradition to ask the guest to say grace. And we both knew that if I failed in that task, George W. Bush, who was going to be there and had a devious streak, would inform his family of my heathen upbringing and godless inclinations, giving everyone a good laugh. Teasing is a hallmark in the Bush family, and I didn’t want to make myself an easy target.
Sure enough, after we were all seated, George H.W. Bush looked across the table at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “M-Kat, would you do the benediction?” M-Kat was the nickname given to me by George W., which has a beatnik derivation, suggesting someone more familiar with the works of Allen Ginsberg than the New Testament.
At that moment, I was both proud and relieved, because not only had I anticipated this moment, I had rehearsed for it. And so, with great confidence, I said, “I’d be honored, Mr. President.” And proceeded to recite the holy lines I had committed to memory, also with great conviction.
When I finished, there was an odd silence. Everyone was looking at me as if waiting for something. The silence got awkward. 41 looked at me with a look of anticipation, then he arched a brow and asked a question that consisted of the one important word I had forgotten: “Amen?”
My cover was blown and the whole room burst out laughing.
There was no judgment in that laughter, just joyful communion with a family that loves to laugh. They knew I was a bit of an outsider, a former songwriter, and, worse, a former Democrat. But they welcomed me as if I were blood kin.
It was a memorable evening, watching the family dynamics of this famous and historic clan at play. I specifically remember Barbara castigating George W. for eating too quickly. But there were also deeper currents at work. It was impossible to miss the quiet and deeply loving interplay between the ex-president and his son, then the current president. The specific words they shared weren’t necessarily important. It was the looks between them that communicated complete and utter unconditional love. I was so moved by their interaction and affection that I took the opportunity before dessert to duck into the hallway and call my father to tell him how much I missed him.
George H.W. Bush will be remembered by history as a deeply accomplished public servant. But the many of us who were lucky enough to pass through his orbit will remember him for his uncommon grace and love toward family and friends. And the occasional ribbing.
Evan Smith, CEO and co-founder of the Texas Tribune and former editor-in-chief of Texas Monthly
I interviewed George Bush for our all-politics issue in 2003, and I’ll tell you, I am not cowed by anybody, but I was absolutely quaking in my boots—okay, in my monk strap shoes—when I was going over to see him. But the thing about him—and this is what everyone says about George Bush—is that he was the nicest person, the most decent person, the most unfailingly polite person, and the most disarming person in the world. The photographer and I had prepared ourselves for somebody who was going to be difficult to deal with, and he was the exact opposite of that.
It’s clear that the narrative through line in the Bush family is: be polite, treat people decently. You know: be your best self. And he was all of those things. He came from people—his father, Prescott Bush, and his mom and the extended Bush family before him—who were like that. And they passed that on to him, and he passed that on to his own children. Every encounter I ever had with George W. Bush, whether it was Governor Bush or President Bush 43 or ex-president Bush, he was the same guy. He is very much his father’s son, and all of us who are parents hope that whatever else we don’t do right, the thing we do do right is to convey the fundamental values of who we are and who we’re supposed to be to our kids. One of the things about George Bush the Elder that survives him is the fact that he passed along to his own children that same decency, that same through line that was passed along by his parents. And that’s what I’m mourning as much as I mourn him.
I emphasize this particularly now because of the absence of decency in all of our lives, especially in politics now. The thing that strikes me at the end of a year in which we’ve lost both John McCain and George H.W. Bush—different people, but similar in an incredibly important way—is that when we mourn George H.W. Bush we don’t just mourn his passing, we mourn the passing of a time when you could disagree with somebody and not hate them, when strafing the landscape was not the norm. I don’t know if their military service—something else he and McCain had in common—had something to do with it, but they were born at a certain time and lived through certain things that shaped who they were, a culture where you were defined as much by how you treated the people you disagreed with as you were the people you agreed with. And when you wake up on any given morning to the kind of things that we wake up to on the news and on Twitter, you think about the new abnormal, the opposite of how he conducted himself. The thing that struck me about those couple of hours with President Bush was how much he represented a world that is all but gone.
—As told to Katy Vine
Mark K. Updegrove, President & CEO of the LBJ Foundation and the author of The Last Republicans: Inside the Extraordinary Relationship Between George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
George H.W. Bush was a master of small, poignant gestures. Rather than lavish shows of affection and generosity, he revealed himself through quiet acts of kindness: a visit to a friend in need, a handwritten note of encouragement, a call simply to touch base. It’s what made him an effective diplomat—in fact, it was perhaps his most vital attribute during his eventful one-term presidency, which was rife with international crises—and a good friend.
Family and friends have myriad stories of Bush’s thoughtfulness. One of my own comes from late 2016, when my wife, Amy, and I had lunch in Houston with him, Mrs. Bush, and Bush’s longtime chief of staff, Jean Becker. As we were catching up, I mentioned that I was considering leaving the LBJ Presidential Library, where I was serving as director, and was in the midst of conversations about possibly becoming the inaugural CEO of the National Medal of Honor Museum. “Do you want the job?” Bush asked. “Yeah, I think so,” I replied, adding that, among other things, we would soon have three children in college and the new position would be substantially more lucrative.
We soon moved on to other topics. But several days later, I got a call from the chairman of the National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation. Much to my surprise, he said, “I just got a letter of recommendation for you from George H.W. Bush.” It was less of a surprise, then, when an official job offer followed several days later.
I sent a thank-you note (no one was more conscientious about thank-you notes than Bush), and I expressed my gratitude again the next time I saw him. He dismissed it with a wave of his hand. “Oh,” he said, “that was a gimme.”
Harry Hurt III, Author of Texas Rich and Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump; formerly a senior editor of Texas Monthly
I grew up in Houston, and I first met George Bush when I was a little boy. I’m between George’s age and Jeb’s age, and I went to different schools together with them. Later, I would run into Mr. Bush at the Bayou Club, where my parents and he were members. This was the summer of ’73 or ’74, when he was serving as the chairman of the Republican National Committee and I was a student at Harvard. I had long hair and was far to the left of Karl Marx. It was a tumultuous time, with the Vietnam War and Watergate going on. Everyone was at hair trigger about these issues, which were in fact life and death.
That summer, I’d occasionally go to the Bayou Club for lunch or to go for a swim, and there would be Mr. Bush and Barbara. I’d say, “Mr. Bush, how can you continue to support Richard Nixon when he ordered the Watergate break-in?” He’d say, “Well, Harry, that hasn’t been completely proven yet.” I’d say, “Well okay, then how can you continue to support President Nixon when he lied to the people about the war in Vietnam?” He’d say, “Well, Harry, you know, war is complicated.”
He was loyal to a fault to the Republican party. He was going to stand by Nixon until the bitter end, because that’s what the job entailed, and he was trying to salvage what was then left of the Republican party. And yet he took the time to stop and debate with me. Even though we disagreed, he seemed to delight in the debate, and even encouraged me to debate with him. He embodied those traditional American values: of the old college try, to do what’s right, and to serve the country. He embodied that philosophy, he personified it, he acted upon it. That’s what I remember about George Bush.
—As told to Charley Locke
Carlos Sanchez, Senior Editor
In August of 1988, I was a young reporter at the Washington Post, and I was assigned to cover the viewing of the recently deceased super lawyer Edward Bennett Williams. The death of Williams, who had long suffered from cancer, was a major event in Washington. Williams once owned the Washington Redskins and the Baltimore Orioles, and he was a trusted adviser to both Democrats and Republicans (in addition to a few infamous figures like mobster Sam Giancana and would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley, Jr.). His funeral would draw an estimated 2,000 of Washington’s elite, who came to pay homage, but just as importantly to see and be seen.
Yet the viewing I attended, at a funeral home near the Gold Coast of upper crust D.C., was a more intimate affair. Except for my presence, it was void of media. I positioned myself at the back of the room, where a steady stream of people somberly filed in.
Soon thereafter, the commotion began. A slew of Secret Service entered from a side door, followed by Vice President George H.W. Bush, whose slow, self-assured walk stood in stark contrast to the domineering presence of his security detail. Bush was in the midst of preparing to leave town for New Orleans, where he would accept his party’s nomination for president, but he had taken the time to pay his respects to Williams—away from the limelight. He spent a few minutes observing the body, and a few more consoling the family.
And then, just as quickly as he had come, he was gone.
Autumn Rich, Co-Founder, Panacea Collective
Doro Bush Koch [George and Barbara’s youngest child] and I worked together at the National Rehabilitation Hospital. When she got married in 1992, she invited several of us from our department at the hospital to the wedding party at a country club. I got the invitation, but it didn’t include a plus one. I was beyond excited. I knew they had to limit people—it was just 200 or 250 people—so I was very honored to get it.
At the party, I ended up talking with Mr. Bush. He asked, “Are you here alone?” I said yes, and he asked, “Why wouldn’t you be married?” I was engaged at the time, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him, “I’m engaged, but you didn’t invite my fiancé.” So instead I said, “I’m just not.” He said, “Let’s go to the bar.”
We walked over, and he ordered a bourbon or a whiskey and ordered me a vodka with soda. The President and I stood there and sipped while we chatted about my love life. He’d point out a Secret Service agent and say, “That’s so-and-so, he’s single and from XYZ, and I think you’d really like him. Do you think he’s cute?” I’d say, “Yeah, he would be attractive, absolutely.” He laughed and said, “Well I wish you luck, I know you’re going to find someone. You’re a lovely young lady, and Doro speaks very highly of you.”
We also talked about our work, since he had been to some of the events that I helped organize. He was the President of the United States, but he always had time to shake everyone’s hand and stop and have a few minutes of conversation. He was very sincere—he made people feel very comfortable, very valued. He made you feel like a true friend.
—As told to Charley Locke