A Kinder, Gentler President

REVIEW: 'Character Matters: And Other Life Lessons from George H.W. Bush' by Jean Becker

George H.W. Bush (Wally McNamee/Grabien)
May 5, 2024

From 1981 to 2017, the United States had only one one-term president. That president was George H.W. Bush. Today, he is regarded as one of the most universally liked and admired people on both sides of the political spectrum. Bush's strong suit was not his ideology, his speaking, or his policy depth. What people liked about him was his character, which is something that Jean Becker explores in her new book, Character Matters.

Becker was a longtime chief of staff to ex-president Bush and the author of The Man I Knew, her own exploration of Bush based on her long experience with him. In Character Matters, she compiles more stories via 149 interviews with people who knew or worked with Bush in order to further illuminate Bush's persona. Each contributor gets a one paragraph bio at the end, whether he or she needed it or not. (I'm looking at you, Bill Clinton.) The compilation of mini bios alone takes up 41 pages.

Many of the contributors have good stories, which is unsurprising given what a terrific guy Bush appears to have been. He was always gracious and solicitous of others. In one story from his presidency, he asked to be awakened at 3 a.m. to call French president François Mitterrand at 9 a.m. in Paris to discuss Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Mitterrand was touched by Bush's courtesy, and France became the first country to join Bush's coalition to expel Iraq from Kuwait. The story shows how Bush's kindness to others was not derived from softness, but from a recognition that this is the best way to get things done.

Bush was always trying, but not all of his plans worked out. In one instance, he took England's Queen Elizabeth to an Orioles baseball game to show her the American pastime. Bush patiently taught her about the game until she pointed to Cal Ripken Sr., the third base coach, and asked, "What does that gentleman do?" Bush explained that he tells runners whether to stop at third or proceed to home. When the queen asked, "Do you mean to tell me that is his entire lot in life?" Bush recognized that his plan was not working and lifted a finger in the air to signal an immediate helicopter return to the White House.

Even when things went wrong, Bush had a good sense of humor about them. In one instance on his speedboat Fidelity, Deputy Press Secretary Sondra Haley threw up over the side. She thought she was discreet about it, but Bush noticed and told her: "Welcome to the club. I once threw up on the prime minister of Japan." (True story.)

On another occasion, Bush was watching wallyball with his kids and grandkids at Camp David when he got a phone call. He went to the courtside phone, listened, and said to photographer Carol Powers: "They got Noriega." Then he said, "Shhh," and returned to watching family wallyball.

Bush was, of course, human, and the pressures of the job could get to him. Nevertheless, he recognized when he was out of line. During the run up to the Gulf war, he snapped at reporter Ann Compton, who asked a question about Jordan's King Hussein embracing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Bush barked, "I can read. What's your question?"

Presidents snapping at reporters has a long history and is something our current president does frequently and rudely. Bush, however, did it rarely, and felt bad about it. He wrote a note to Compton, saying, "Dear Ann, you did a great job yesterday. I hope my response during our Press to and fro was not offensive. I wasn't too happy with my reply. All best, GB."

Another reporter he sparred with was the New York Times's Maureen Dowd. She could be brutal to him, but he was usually understanding in return. In one instance, he sent her a note saying, "I reserve the right to whine, to not read, to use profanity, but if you ever get really hurt, or if you ever get really down to need a shoulder to cry on, or just need a friend – – give me a call. I'll be there for you. I'll not let you down. Now, go on out and knock my knickers off. When you do, I might just cancel my subscription." As Dowd recalls, he never actually canceled his subscription, as "he was against cancel culture before cancel culture existed!! He just was not a vengeful, sniffy, begrudging person. He was, in a word, classy."

Many of the stories in the book are from the period after Bush was president. In one amusing tale, the CIA tells Bush it fears his friend and collaborator, Saudi prince Bandar, has been assassinated by the Syrians, as no one has been able to reach him. Bush asks, why don't we call him, and reaches the man on his cell phone. Bandar explains that he was in hiding because he feared the Syrian plot, but that he was perfectly fine. When the CIA official heard what Bush had discovered, he said, "We have got to get that man back on the payroll."

This is not a book aimed at political sophisticates. In fact, it's the kind of book that has footnotes to define words like "encomium" and "hagiography." But if you like George H.W. Bush—and it is hard not to—and you like the kinds of stories outlined above, this may be the book for you.

Character Matters: And Other Life Lessons from George H.W. Bush
by Jean Becker
Twelve, 368 pp., $30

Tevi Troy, a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former senior White House aide, is the author of five books on the presidency, including the forthcoming The Power and the Money: The Epic Clashes Between Commanders in Chief and Titans of Industry (Regnery History).