Presidents Are Parents, Too

When George H.W. Bush died, The New York Times ran a poignant piece about the relationship between him and his son, the younger George Bush. Here, in abbreviated form, is what appeared in the paper.


By the time George W. Bush left office in 2009, the 41st and 43rd presidents could finally put the burdens of public life behind them and focus on the things that parents and children focus on when the parents grow older. They relaxed with each other in Texas and Maine unaccompanied by a military aide with the nuclear codes. They shared the joy of family weddings and births, and fretted over health problems. They talked about funeral plans.
“There was probably an easing,” said Mark K. Updegrove, a historian who spent time with both men in recent years as he worked on “The Last Republicans,” his book on the two presidents. “It was probably an easier relationship in a lot of ways.”
“Let’s face it,” he added, “’43 being president was difficult for both of them in some respects. And while neither of them put undue burden on the other, there were still underlying tensions given the nature of the situation. I think it was much easier in the post-presidential years.”
In their mutual post-presidency, George W. Bush seemed intent on making sure his father knew that he truly did admire him. A fledgling painter, he produced a portrait capturing his father’s spirit. A fledgling author, he wrote an almost worshipful book about his father that he rushed into print so that it would be published before the elder Mr. Bush died.
Growing up the eldest son of George Herbert Walker Bush had its benefits and challenges. Mr. Bush was a star college baseball player, a war hero and a successful businessman before entering politics. George W. Bush always said that what he got from his father was “unconditional love,” but he also got a tough act to follow. He sought to follow the same path, enrolling in some of the same schools, but struggled with alcohol and a wild streak.
SIGN UIt was not until George W. quit drinking cold turkey after his 40th birthday that his life began turning around. He eventually brokered the sale of the Texas Rangers and made himself the public face of the team as a managing partner. That led to a successful campaign for governor, which ultimately led to a White House run of his own.
Mr. Bush seemed intent on avoiding what he perceived as his father’s mistakes. Not only would he not raise taxes as the first President Bush did, he would cut them. He would cultivate the conservative base even as he touted the family’s famed compassion. And most famously, he would send American troops to Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, whom his father had left in power after the Persian Gulf war of 1991. Many wondered at the time about his true motivation. “This is a guy that tried to kill my dad at one time,” the son said of Mr. Hussein at one point.


Jonathan Bush, the brother of the elder Mr. Bush, said his brother respected the younger Mr. Bush’s prerogatives as president. “When George W. was president, he was the perfect counselor because he would never give his advice. He would just listen,” Mr. Bush said in an interview. “They were very close when he was president.”
In the past few years, neither had the weight of the world on his shoulders, neither had to worry about saying anything that would embarrass the other, neither had to watch as a loved one came under harsh criticism.
In the end, the elder Mr. Bush’s final decline at his home in Houston came quickly last Friday night, too quickly for the son to make it from his home in Dallas. And so a speakerphone connected them one last time.
The son told the dying father that he was a “wonderful dad” and that he loved him.
I love you, too,” the father replied in what were reported to be his last words.

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