Dalton Delan | The Unspin Room: George H.W. Bush: kinder, gentler and the last of his kind
WESTPORT, Conn. — A kinder, gentler snow is falling over Main Street in Litchfield, Connecticut, as we step out of the restaurant. The flakes are tiny dancers swirling in the air, a thousand points of light. My cousin Ken and I are fond of irony, and our conversation has once again touched on the madness of media that subsists on a diet of alternative facts, finding or creating them. My other cousin, Wendy, is in from the coast and surprised by snow. As we drive away, she muses on Twain's Connecticut Yankee and New Englanders. As I watch the windshield wipers brush the flakes from our glass-enclosed cocoon, I think on how my mother and her brothers were members of the Greatest Generation, gone now, or nearly so.
Later that evening, the push comes on my pocket computer, aka cellphone, that Bush 41 has passed. The memories come flooding back. It is another season last year, when the winds of summer loft me up to Kennebunkport for an assignment on Walker's Point. The sky is a brilliant blue, and captured in my camera, the house across the isthmus reminds me of something out of a Bond film, the isolated manse where James must infiltrate the gala.
After parking my car in the remote lot, the over-caffeinated Secret Service agent speeds me up to the main house on a golf cart. I'm sitting on the rear-facing back seat, and he doesn't seem to notice that his fast turns nearly send me flying. I can see the headlines now: Rider Impaled on Walker's Point. But I survive to escape that ignominious ink, and while I wait for H.W. to return from his morning exercise, I look back down the path and hope the agent treats the President more kindly on his ride up. With Barbara Bush and her devilish dogs, always one bite away from satisfied, riding herd on them, the agents behave themselves. They tell me no agent has escaped a bite, and I believe them. No petting allowed.
The President has vascular Parkinsonism now, and even though he enters on his own wheels, Mrs. Bush makes sure he is lifted out and seated in a more statesmanlike armchair for the camera. I think back on FDR, and how the press went along with the charade and never photographed or tattled on his arrival at whatever speaking engagement by wheels, not legs; indeed, only a few seconds of unused newsreel exist that show how hard it was for him to stand to the microphone. Those were different times. This president, no longer commanding his 6' 2" height or the armed forces, has not lost his affable charm or the bonhomie of his adopted Texas. In his eyes I see a man who could coolly cross the aisle for a compromise, raising taxes despite his vow to "read my lips." In the corner, I see a jigsaw puzzle and, yes, it's there — or rather, not there — his signature prank, the missing piece he has pocketed to drive the puzzle-doer to distraction.
Now the boys of summer are gone, and the world seems a lesser place, with only partisanship without the bi-, and the winds of winter have blown in early over the Capitol. Monday afternoon, I find myself on the way to dinner near the White House when a cortege of black limos and light upon light of red and blue police Harleys flow across the 14th Street bridge, and there along the Potomac I realize that all that remains of George Herbert Walker Bush is making a last journey to the Rotunda to lie in state on the Hill. Would he even recognize the place in its current dyspeptic dysfunction?
He almost died one time before, after ditching his torpedo bomber in the Pacific after a run on Chichi Jima. It was 1944, and this shivering officer, barely afloat, who enlisted on his 18th birthday, didn't know if he would live to see another day. But a sub picked him up, and after 58 combat missions, he could handle left-handed the political battles that came later. If you'd like a sense of the esprit de corps, the admixture of bravado and terror that animated these young fliers, find a copy of "Flights of Passage" by Samuel Hynes, a fellow torpedo bomber who risked his life flying an overpowered tin can in the Pacific Theater. Like Ike, his model, H.W. forged his identity in battle. Fond of loud socks, even in his casket he wears a pair stitched with planes in formation and vapor trails.
The pundits can carp all they like about Quayle and Clarence Thomas, Kuwait and dissing Dukakis. Pragmatic to a fault, granted. But I remember a Connecticut Yankee who cared, and fought, and helped the Berlin Wall fall. The last of his kind.
Dalton Delan has won Emmy, Peabody and DuPont-Columbia awards for his work as a television producer.
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