President Obama exchanges a pleasantry with former President George H. W. Bush, right, during a ceremony to recognize the 5,000th Daily Point of Light Award in the White House last week.
So there he was, using a wheelchair, but with the old sense of style. He was short of breath, but with the old intuitive grace.
George H.W. Bush, 89 years old, was back in the White House last week, to mark the 5,000th Points of Light Award and to remind us that there are second acts in American lives — and that often they are extraordinary.
Many American presidents have had remarkable second lives. John Quincy Adams, like Mr. Bush a member of an indispensable American political dynasty, followed his White House years with a star turn in the House. There, he distinguished himself as a man of courage and integrity by winning freedom for Africans who mutinied on the slave ship Amistad and refusing payment for arguing their case before the Supreme Court.
Later, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, like Mr. Adams single-term presidents, won the world’s applause as advocates of human rights, ranging from freedom from hunger in European war zones to freedom from fear at the polling place.
It may be that leaving the White House after a single term liberates a man to do his best work — Ohio’s Rutherford B. Hayes was a tireless advocate of educational opportunity and social mobility, for example.
Nothing changes presidents’ profiles quite so much as leaving the White House, sometimes to have those profiles polished and perhaps sanitized in their post-presidential years. Mr. Bush is our latest living example of how time can burnish a president’s profile. He left office as a caricature of an Andover-and-Ivy plutocrat, lacking feeling for the victims of an economic downturn, remote from the daily lives of the people he sought to lead, offering timeworn but irrelevant nostrums for the nation’s problems.
Today, the man who relentlessly cultivated that image of Mr. Bush, his 1992 rival Bill Clinton, regards him pre-eminently as a man of integrity and achievement. Mr. Clinton sometimes speaks fondly of Mr. Bush as the father he never had, and members of the Bush family joke that Mr. Clinton is the 41st president’s favorite son.
Mr. Bush left office 20 years ago. His appearance in the East Room last week was a poignant symbol of the passing of time, and of what time’s passing can do to a presidency.
For Ulysses Grant, the passing of time has transformed the 18th president from a bumbling, corrupt drunkard placeholder into a man of intelligence, determination, shrewdness, and tolerance, particularly toward Indians.
For Ohio’s James Garfield, the passing of time transformed the 20th president from an obscure figure remembered mostly for being assassinated into a figure of grandeur and destiny, a formidable symbol of American opportunity and mobility.
For Lyndon Johnson, the passage of time transformed the 36th president from a crude if not corrupt accidental chief executive, whose ineptitude sent tens of thousands to their deaths in Vietnam, into an ambitious if not quixotic spokesman of civil rights and an advocate of social progress.
In White House remarks at last week’s event, Neil Bush said his father urged his sons — and all other Americans — to live meaningful, ambitious lives. He also urged everyone, in the younger Mr. Bush’s words, to “find the dignity and goodness in every person.”
Historical revisionism and popular reassessment often do just that, but it requires the presence of inner dignity and innate goodness in a president to accomplish it.
The elder Mr. Bush was a master of power politics in foreign affairs and hard-nosed politics in his election battles. But the country regards him today as an ineffable symbol of dignity and goodness.
Sometimes, the presidency isn’t so much a gift to an individual as it is to the nation.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org