By Jim Towey
George and Laura Bush get even better with age.
I was with them two weeks ago at a reunion of the Bush White House staff. The former President and First Lady are exemplars of how to age with dignity. Faith, family and friends are at the center of their lives, and the older they get, the more they rely on these ties that bind. They both engage with the world through the institute and library that bear the 43rd president’s name. It has been 10 years since the inauguration of these post-presidential projects on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and yet the Bushes remain very active in the affairs of the world and their beloved hometown.
Love for each other
What touched me the most when I saw them is how they seem to be more in love with each other than ever before. They have been married for 45 years and it is simply impossible to think of one of them without the other. My wife Mary and I had lunch with them in October and delighted in how they playfully teased each other. That afternoon the four of us laughed as we recalled stories from the White House years. I had served from 2002-2006 as the director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, an endeavor he pioneered to unleash what he called America’s “armies of compassion” in the service of those in need of a helping hand.
President Bush was loved by his staff and so they showed up in Dallas in droves (I can imagine a future Trump reunion being held at a corner table at Denny’s). Bush’s two chiefs-of-staff, Andy Card and Josh Bolten, were in attendance, as were Dana Perino and Karl Rove (Fox News), Dan Bartlett (Walmart), Karen Hughes (Burson-Marsteller), Blake Gottesman (Berkshire Partners) and Joel Kaplan (Meta), to name a few of the “alums” who went on to huge jobs. It was great catching up with them.
Bush’s bedrock faith clearly guides his aging (he will be 77 next month). The first family doesn’t esteem showy, outward displays of faith. They are the last people to want to be thought of as exemplary Christians. But their quiet faith is evident – in their smiles despite the aches and pains; in their generosity with visiting friends and strangers alike; in advocating for freedom and prosperity across the globe; as well as in the precious moments when they are with their grandchildren.
President Bush is conscious of his own mortality. He was asked recently about the importance his Christian faith plays in his life, and he answered with a story about his mom:
“It’s still important as I come closer to death. It’s really important. My dear mother left me with an evangelical message and here it is. Laura and I go visit her in the hospital and (my mother) looks at me and– you know, she’s kind of a blunt speaker. She said, ‘George, I want to die.’ Like, wow. I said, ‘Do you fear death?’ She said, ‘I don’t fear it at all.’
“You know, I’m kind of an overeducated simple guy in a way. And so, I’m saying to myself, she’s just saying that to make me feel better. About three weeks later, I get a phone call from the house where she is in hospice and [I’m told] ‘Your mom will be dead soon.’ I said to put her on the phone, please. ‘Mom, I’m calling to tell you how much I love you and what a fabulous mother you have been.’ And she said, ‘George, I love you too. You’re my favorite son – on the phone.’ And those are the last words my mother spoke, thereby proving she did not fear death – because if you fear death, you can’t quip into the grave.”
I have a feeling President Bush will be quipping into his grave, too. I think one of the reasons he paints, and Laura reveres nature is because they behold in these activities the beauty and presence of a loving God in the midst of this broken world. Both are unshakably optimistic and hopeful. God is in control of both their lives and this planet.
Aging with dignity and grace
George and Laura Bush left the White House and never looked back. In the 15 years since their departure, they have conducted themselves with grace and dignity. People can disagree about how history will judge his presidency (I, for one, believe it will be favorably), but few will argue about the loveliness of their post-presidential lives.
At a time when our country is riven by division and identity politics, George and Laura Bush make all Americans proud.