Bush the Elder, &c.

President George W. Bush (left) and former president George H.W. Bush at the White House in 2008 (Jim Young / Reuters)
On the late president, the current president, possible future presidents, and more

When George W. Bush became president in 2001, I was unsure how to refer to his father. I didn’t like “George H. W. Bush” — I thought it too cumbersome. I didn’t like “Bush Senior,” because he and his eldest son were not senior and junior (strictly speaking).

I settled on “Bush the Elder” (as in “Johann Strauss the Younger”). I also used “41” and “43,” as the presidents Bush themselves did.

I loved something 41 said, right after his son’s swearing-in: “I used to be ‘George Bush.’ I used to be ‘the president.’ I don’t know who the hell I am anymore.”

• You recall that George W. Bush wrote a book about his father. It was called, simply, “41.”

• Bush the Elder sometimes spoke choppily, eschewing personal pronouns. He would say, for example, “Not gonna do it,” instead of “I’m not going to do it.”

His mother, Dorothy, did not like too much “I” and “me” from her children. If one of them went on this way, she’d admonish, “Now, that’s enough of the Great I Am.”

Perfect. I often think of that.

• When in school, Bush (the future “41”) was nicknamed “Have Half.” Because, when he pulled out a sandwich for lunch, he would say to the guy next to him, “Here: Have half.”

• During the war, he was the youngest pilot in the Navy. He enlisted on his 18th birthday.

• When he was president, he made a school visit. A child would not believe that Bush was president of the United States. But the child knew, somehow, that the president was a man named George Bush.

So Bush pulled out his driver’s license. He said, “Do you think I’m some foolin’ kind of guy?”

• In the 1984 vice-presidential debate, Bush said something in his closing statement that I sort of thrilled to. He said, “I can’t tell you what a joy it is to serve with a president who does not apologize for the United States of America.” His opponent, Geraldine Ferraro, got a perplexed look on her face. I knew exactly what he meant.

• Barbara Bush made one of the most remarkable statements I have ever heard a wife or mother make. She said, “All four of my sons are handsome — but nothing like their father.”

When I recounted this to Jeb Bush, he grinned and said, “It’s true.”

• I relished something that Bush said after the Gulf War: “We kicked that ol’ Vietnam syndrome.”

• He would tell the story about being in San Francisco, where a woman approached the car he was riding in. “She was the ugliest woman I have ever seen in my life. She held up a sign that said, ‘Stay Out of My Womb!’ No problem, lady.”

• Last summer, President Trump mocked some words that Bush spoke in 1988. Trump said to a rally, “What the hell was that, by the way, ‘thousand points of light’? What did that mean? Does anyone know?”

I knew. It was part of Bush’s view of civil society, and indeed of America itself. I wrote about it in a post, here.

• There have been many remembrances of Bush the Elder. Check out Christopher Buckley’s. It has the Buckley touch — and I use those words advisedly, trust me.

• We recently marked Pearl Harbor Day. Bush was among those who fought the Japanese, of course, and he fought valiantly. After the war, something almost miraculous happened: Japan became a democratic, liberal, prosperous country. America had no small role in that, and we Yanks can take pride in it.

• In 1991, Bush made William Barr attorney general. Now, 27 years later, Barr will again fill that position, for Donald Trump. I think of Donald Rumsfeld — whom Ford made secretary of defense in 1975. In 2001, 26 years later, he became SecDef again, for Bush 43.

• What if a Democratic president had paid hush money to a porn star and a Playboy bunny in the middle of a campaign, and then lied about it, repeatedly and flagrantly? I can answer that with great confidence.

Republicans and conservatives would be up in arms. And Democrats and liberals would be shrugging, excusing, and saying, “Move on.”

There is no principle here — just red jerseys and blue jerseys.

What if a Democratic president had denied repeatedly that he was pursuing a business deal with the Russians in the middle of a campaign? And then, when the denial was unsustainable, had declared his actions “very legal & very cool”?

Same thing.

• Kirsten Gillibrand, the Democratic senator from New York, and a presidential possibility for 2020, tweeted, “Our future is: Female. Intersectional.” Etc.

The gap between Democratic leaders and the campus Left grows ever narrower. They are even talking alike — which is bad, bad news for the country.

• Another presidential possibility is Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York (and one of the outstanding businessmen of our time). He has given $50 million to fight opioid addiction. That’s damn good. Plus, may I say, “Hurray for free enterprise,” which generates such dough?

(To see a story about the Bloomberg gift, go here.)

• Care for a little music? To read my “New York Chronicle,” in the current New Criterion, go here. To read a review of The Pearl Fishers, Bizet’s opera, at the Met, go here. To read a review of the New York Philharmonic — with Jaap van Zweden, conductor, and Simone Lamsma, violin — go here.

• On the last day of November, I was at Yale University, for an event of the Buckley Program. Whenever I go to Yale, I think of Bill Buckley (Buckley Program aside). I have never known anyone whose college experience meant more to him. (WFB went to Yale.) He referred to it regularly. Over the years, I met many of his college classmates, and listened to them talk about their Yale days. Moreover, WFB returned to Yale — physically, I mean; in the flesh — as often as he could. It was a home and touchstone to him.

Some people think of WFB as in opposition to Yale, which he was, given his first book and all. But WFB quarreled with Yale as you do a person you care very much about.

• A little language? In a recent Impromptus, I had an item about Jews and anti-Semitism. Well — let me just copy and paste it, rather than try to describe it:

A colleague of mine sent me an article published in Smithsonian magazine. It’s called “Becoming Anne Frank.” And its opening line is, “People love dead Jews. Living Jews, not so much.”

I thought of Michael Gove, the British politician and writer. Once, in an interview, I discussed anti-Semitism with him. I said that I had observed something in life: There are people who like Jews when they’re weak and vulnerable, but not when they’re strong and armed. Gove said, “Jews in tanks is not allowed.”

Unforgettable, that phrase, at least by me: “Jews in tanks is not allowed.”

A reader now writes,


Why is it “Jews in tanks is not allowed”? Shouldn’t it be are not allowed?

No. The statement refers to the idea of Jews in tanks. “Polka dots on dresses is a good idea.” “Five beers before you drive home is a bad idea.”


• I love the Bush family, and I love the U.S. presidency. I love pomp and circumstance and ceremony. Therefore, the state funeral for Bush 41 was right up my alley. But — I’m not sure that a republic such as ours should have state funerals, you know?

Anyway, thank you for joining me, everyone, and bless you all. And bless our GHWB.

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