Guest Opinions

A brush with George H.W. Bush, and a note that is still cherished

Former President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush, who preceded him in death by eight months, attend the Republican National Convention in 2008.
Former President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush, who preceded him in death by eight months, attend the Republican National Convention in 2008. AP file

It was a hot summer day in the northwest suburbs of Chicago in the presidential election year of 1992. Thunderclouds overhead threatened as Republican Party precinct workers gathered at a picnic to hear from President Bush, who was running for re-election. Before his arrival, the talk among picnic-goers was how they might have to cancel the event.

But with a president on his way, come rain or shine, the picnic would proceed. And rain it did — buckets of it descending on the stage as the president’s entourage arrived. It was clear to picnic organizers that if the show were to go on, the president would need umbrellas on each side of him, trying to keep him dry as he gave his remarks.

As the lieutenant governor at the time, I was asked by parade organizers to stand on one side of the president with an extra-large umbrella, and the Cook County state’s attorney would stand on the other side with the same. As President Bush exhorted the crowd to get out the vote, we held our umbrellas high as cameras flashed and reporters took soggy notes.

One of those cameras — from The New York Times — captured the president delivering one of the wettest speeches he ever gave, shielded by the umbrella guys. The next day, The Times displayed a photo — front page, no less — of the president speaking to the party faithful with a simple cutline below that read, “President Bush acknowledging supporters in Chicago at a Republican Party picnic cut short by rain. With him was Jack O’Malley, the Cook County state’s attorney. The man at the left was not identified.”

Really? Unidentified? That’s right. The lieutenant governor would go unrecognized by The New York Times, a sure sign of the stature of the office, I would claim as my only retort, and it provided such a good laugh that my staff thought they should ask the president to sign a copy of the front page story and give it to me as a gift.

So off to the White House goes the front page with a personal request asking the president to sign it. Now we all know the president has lots on his plate on any given day. Identifying some lieutenant governor in Illinois would surely not be very high on any list.

A few weeks later, a package arrived in the mail. Not just the NY Times photo signed by the president. No, it was a framed copy of the front page of the NY Times with a personal note below it from President Bush, which read simply, “To Bob Kustra, I have ‘identified’ you. You’re a great guy, a Lt. Gov., and a friend. G Bush.”

For years now, I must admit I sometimes wondered if his staff filled in for the president and wrote the note to that loyal Republican lieutenant governor who held the umbrella. That doubt was erased this week, as we all take time to honor this great American, who set a standard for civility that we so much miss in today’s political arena.

Friends, associates and staff regaled the press with tales of his letter and note writing over the years. Many of those letters have been compiled in a book, “All the Best, George Bush,” and it reflects the humor that amused his friends and family, his philosophy of life, and his love of family, especially his wife and life partner, Barbara Bush.

So could it be that my framed photo and personal note from the president were actually from the man himself? The writing sure looks authentic, and if there is one thing we all learned in the wake of the president’s passing, it is the authenticity of the man.

In today’s lingo, George H.W. Bush was the Real Deal. War hero, patriot, servant of the people in the most critical governmental assignments, serving as vice president, as a member of Congress, as CIA head and as ambassador to China. Yet, no matter what the assignment, no matter how busy the man, there was still time for those notes and letters to family, friends and even political foes.

Like the note he left in the Oval Office for his successor. To President Bill Clinton he wrote in 1992: “You will be our president when you read this note. I wish you well ... Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck.”

Or the one he wrote to his beloved Barbara: “I love you precious, with all my heart. To know you love me means my life.”

Or the one he wrote about Robin, the 3-year-old daughter the Bushes’ lost to cancer: “But she is still with us. We need her and yet we have her. We can’t touch her and yet we can feel her. We hope she’ll stay in our house for a long, long time.”

I’ve always enjoyed that framed photo and message that has hung in our home for years. Above all else, to have a personal message from the president filling in the details for The New York Times.

What I have learned about President Bush in the many recollections this week of a life well-lived reaffirms my hope for a time when we will once again summon our better angels, as he was so capable of doing. Now every time I look at that photo, I will remember those days when the presidency was about character and integrity, and perhaps most important of all, the personal touch of human kindness and generosity of spirit this nation so desperately needs right now.

And if you don’t mind, in this season of believing, I do believe President Bush remembered that rainy day, had a good laugh at the mystery man in the photo and penned that message himself.

Bob Kustra is the retired president of Boise State University and a former lieutenant governor of Illinois.