Like much of America, I was glued to the television for much of last week. President George H.W. Bush was a special man. I always identified with him on a more personal level than most of my generation. Part of that was because he was born exactly one day before my dad – June 12, 1924. And like my dad, he served in the Pacific Theater of the Second World War. But there’s more. I will never forget the three times I met the former president.
Let me say up front, I didn’t actually “meet” the president, in the way some consider “meet.” Though we were in the same rooms (very large rooms), we never actually talked. I never shook his hand. In fact, I was never within 20 feet of the man.
But to observe George Bush up close was to meet him. He was everyone’s father, grandfather, or friend. Maybe that’s why I wept openly so many times last week – when George W. Bush gave the eulogy, when the train made its way from Houston to College Station, and when the Aggie Band played. Through all the speeches, images, and pageantry, Bush’s faith and patriotism were on full display.
But let’s get back to the three times I “met” George Bush.
1. On the tennis court
The year was 1982. I was invited by a close friend to play tennis at the Houstonian Club – a very exclusive country club. When Gary and I approached our court, we were held back for a few minutes. The two men playing on our court played beyond their scheduled time. So we waited – and watched. Who were these two players? One was Texas Democratic Senator Lloyd Bentsen. The other player? Vice President George H.W. Bush. And Bush had a pretty good game. But more impressively, he was playing with one of the leading Democrats in Washington. Bush had made friends with the “enemy.” For Bush, life was more than politics. He built relationships across the political aisle. That said a lot for the character of this very good man.
2. The vice presidential search
I was one of about 25 pastors in the Houston area who were summoned to meet with Vice President Bush. The year was 1988. He was running for president, and at the time of this meeting, his nomination was in the bag. Now, he was contemplating his vice presidential choice. To that end, he instructed his staff to assemble clergy in small groups around the country. He wanted to know who we thought he should name as his running mate. Mr. Bush was unable to attend this meeting. But his faith and priorities were there for all to see.
3. The Astros game
This is my favorite Bush story. The year was about 2012. Bush would have been about 88 at that time. Beth and I were given third-row seats to an Astros game. Our seats were one section removed from George and Barbara Bush. They were 20 feet and two secret servicemen away. But they were close enough for me to observe their every move with my eagle eye. And here’s what happened.
George Bush ordered a bag of candy from the employee assigned to them. He placed the candy on the ledge in front of him, just behind the backstop. Then a fan to his left called his name. He turned to wave. And when he turned back, his candy was missing. We saw what he missed. Barbara hid his candy. He looked around in exasperation. Finally, he turned back to his left to order another bag of candy. And when he turned to the right once again – poof! – his candy reappeared. George figured out what the rest of us sitting nearby had seen. Barbara took, then returned, his candy.
When he figured out what Barbara had done, they shared a laugh and a kiss. What’s my point? The man was human. He didn’t seem to care what anyone else thought. Being “presidential” mattered less to George Bush than supporting his beloved Astros with his best friend by his side.
No, I didn’t actually meet President Bush. I have met two presidents in my lifetime – both very briefly. And I love them both – Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. But I feel like George H.W. Bush was the only president I ever knew.
Our loss is heaven’s gain. As President Bush’s minister said at the service in Washington, heaven just became a kinder, gentler place.