H-Town Diary

Remembering George H.W. Bush

"Another admirable quality of Bush 41 has escaped notice amidst all the high-profile encomia: his kindness to the little people in his life. Like me."

By Richard J. Smith January 28, 2019 Published in the February 2019 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Kofong Hsia

The passing of George H.W. Bush on November 30, 2018, at the age of 94 unleashed torrents of praise from fellow Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike. Bill Clinton, for example, called him “a world-class human being.” Political pundits from around the globe remarked on his breadth of experience, decency, humility, strength of character, public service, statesmanship, and patriotism—remarks that were echoed in the eulogies delivered at his funeral services on December 5 and 6. But another admirable quality of Bush 41 has escaped notice amidst all the high-profile encomia: his kindness to the little people in his life. Like me.

I first met Bush in the spring of 1977. He’d just returned to Houston following his service from 1974 to 1975 as the chief liaison officer to China (the functional equivalent of ambassador, before the United States officially recognized the People’s Republic in January of 1979), and as the director of the CIA (1976–77). At the time he was already planning to reenter electoral politics, and as one of a series of trial balloons, he decided to give a speech at Rice University on the theme of U.S. policy toward China.

The speech, which focused on the need to develop stronger ties with China, was preceded by a slideshow on Beijing, presented by Barbara Bush, who had clearly enjoyed her time in the PRC. She and her husband regularly cycled around the city, earning them the fond Chinese sobriquet “bicycle-riding envoys.”

It seemed appropriate for a Rice China specialist to introduce their joint presentation, and, as it turned out, I was the only possible choice at the time—a lowly assistant professor without a book and without tenure. Even so, the Bushes contacted me, and with typical Southern hospitality (despite their East Coast origins), they invited me, my wife, Lisa, and our 2-year-old son, Tyler, to a pool party at their spacious but inviting Houston home on Indian Trail near the Houston Country Club. Barbara Bush emphasized that it would be a very casual affair, and so we dressed accordingly. 

It was then I learned that “very casual” meant something different to the Texas Bushes than it did to the California Smiths. On my urging, Lisa reluctantly eschewed a new dress in favor of an old cotton top and frayed blue jeans; Tyler wore shorts and a Mickey Mouse T-shirt; and I was dressed in a similar fashion, but with plastic tennis shoes that my father had sent to me from California, purchased, he noted proudly, from a drugstore for $2. 

On the appointed afternoon, the three of us showed up at the Bush residence. Despite our attire (my English-teacher wife later said that “we looked like the Joads” from The Grapes of Wrath), the Bushes warmly welcomed us into their home, where most of the other guests, including James Baker III, looked as if they had come directly from church. As we entered, Lisa muttered through clenched teeth, “I’m going to kill you for this.” Still, we had a great time, even though we were undoubtedly the only Democrats in attendance. No one went swimming.

Lisa and Barbara Bush hit it off instantly. At one point Barbara took Lisa upstairs to show her an elaborate patchwork quilt she had been working on for years. She explained that wherever she and George traveled, she would embroider eight-inch squares with names, dates, and colorful images, which she added to the quilt to commemorate events that were meaningful to her, including political ones. Spreading the unfinished project across a bed, and ruminating on her husband’s aspirations at the time, she said in a tone of bemused resignation, “Oh, George. He wants to be the President.” When Barbara died on April 17, 2018, Lisa could not help wondering what had happened to that dazzling quilt. Did she finish it, and if she did, what did she choose to celebrate in the remaining squares? Lisa thought about it again when George passed away a few months later.

George and I remained in contact during 1977, in part because George served for a time as an adjunct professor at Rice in what is now the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business. He and I bonded over baseball, which we both played in college, and, of course, a shared interest in China. At some point he encouraged me to call him George, and he started calling me Dick; I didn’t dissuade him, and he thus became the only person on the planet who could call me by that name and get away with it. 

In April of 1978, when a group of Chinese dignitaries came to town, the Bushes invited us to attend a dinner party with the visitors at their home. On this occasion I wore a tan suit and a patterned blue and yellow tie, both of which Lisa picked out for me immediately after the pool party. Her hope was that I might look respectable when it came time to introduce Barbara and George at the packed Rice Memorial Center.

The dinner party itself was not particularly memorable. As at subsequent Bush social events involving visitors from the PRC, my personal goal was to help bridge the cultural gap between China and America. It wasn’t easy. At one point in the evening a Chinese visitor remarked in all seriousness that it was admirable of the Bushes to use candles on the dinner tables in order to conserve energy. I suppose it would have been uncharitable to point out that George Bush was a co-founder of the Zapata Petroleum Corporation.

In late 1978 George was kind enough to arrange my first trip to China, where I was able to see for myself how frugal and self-sacrificing the Chinese were. “Waste is treasure,” they claimed, well before recycling was cool in the United States.

During George’s eight-year stint as Vice President, beginning in 1980, Lisa and I remained in touch with the Bushes through correspondence, and after Reagan was reelected in 1984, at a time when our son had just recovered from a severe case of osteomyelitis, Barbara invited Lisa and me to attend one of the President’s inaugural balls. In a formal letter dated November 8, 1984, in which she informed us of the forthcoming White House invitation, Barbara included a handwritten note that read: “We are thrilled with the election . . . and thrilled Tyler is getting well,” as if George’s political fortunes and our son’s recovery were somehow of equal importance to the Bush family. 

After George became President in 1989, he, Barbara, and I continued to exchange letters. By this, I mean that I would periodically write a letter of congratulations and/or send them a copy of my latest book, and one or both of them would kindly respond with a note of thanks, invariably inquiring about my family. Their graciousness was boundless—and they knew that I was a Democrat!

Following the return of George and Barbara to Houston after their four-year stint in the White House, the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy—named for George’s former chief of staff, secretary of state, and one of his closest friends —with which I had become marginally involved, hosted its First Annual Conference (November 13–14, 1995) on the theme “Foreign Policy Challenges at the End of the Century.” It was a major event, involving a number of present and former foreign ministers, ambassadors, and other diplomats from China, Russia, Japan, Germany, and France, as well as corporate executives and a number of academics. Keynote speakers included Rice’s president, Malcolm Gillis, James Baker III, and former president Bush. 

While I was standing around after my panel, someone from the Baker Institute staff came up to me and said, “The president wants to speak with you.” I naturally thought he meant Gillis, who, I assumed, wanted to berate me for something critical I had said in the presence of the former Chinese ambassador to the U.S., Zhu Qizhen. Instead, the Baker staff member ushered me directly to President Bush, who, it turned out, “just wanted to say hi and chat for a bit.” I was astonished. But that’s the kind of man George Bush was. Surrounded by dignitaries, he chose to spend some time with one of the little people in his life.

In a widely distributed note, first written to the editor of LEADERS magazine, Henry Dormann, in 2003, George offered some “advice to young people,” which resonated entirely with what we knew of the Bushes. It included the following admonitions: 

1. Don’t get down when your life takes a bad turn. Out of adversity comes challenge and often success. 

2. Don’t blame others for your setbacks. 

3. When things go well, always give credit to others. 

4. Don’t talk all the time. Listen to your friends and mentors and learn from them. 

5. Don’t brag about yourself. Let others point out your virtues, your strong points. 

6. Give someone else a hand. When a friend is hurting, show that friend you care. 

7. Nobody likes an overbearing big shot. 

8. As you succeed, be kind to people. Thank those who help you along the way.

9. Don’t be afraid to shed a tear when your heart is broken because a friend is hurting.

10. Say your prayers!!

This is wise counsel, it seems to me, not only for young people, but also for politicians of all ages and political persuasions. George H.W. Bush, to his eternal credit, practiced what he preached, and I shall miss him.

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