Of friendship and common decency
It has been a week of thoughtful recollection and warm tributes to George H. W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, who died last Friday.
Like all leaders, global or local, Bush collected his share of credits and blame and leaves a legacy of character traits to follow or ignore. To me, a key Bush lesson is the value of nurturing friendships.
Bush’s long friendship with James Baker, his secretary of state and White House chief of staff, is well documented as a friendship that benefitted both men and their missions.
There were many other nurtured friendships, not so well documented but certainly reflective of how friendships make us better human beings and help us achieve what we need to achieve. One example is the 30-year friendship between Bush and Brian Mulroney, our former prime minister.
The two men developed a bond that Mulroney says helped achieve policies important to Canadians, including the North American Free Trade Agreement and the U.S.–Canada Treaty on acid rain.
Bush’s friendships were not just with people who felt the same about things that he did. He was close with Bill Clinton, the political opposite who denied him a second presidential term. Some observers have said that Democrat Clinton had huge respect for the man he defeated and Republican Bush treated Clinton much like a son.
Friendships offer people opportunities to learn from each other. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former California governor and movie star, remembers that his friendship with Bush taught him “the good side of politics, that you can cross the aisle and you can talk to the other side.”
Bush also was an example of how common decency allows a person to have friendships with people who criticize you and sometimes hurt you.
Maureen Dowd, the New York Times journalist, revealed this week her unlikely friendship with Bush despite some tough pieces she wrote about his presidency and that of his son, George.
Bush did not like some things the New York Times wrote, but always seemed to understand the relationship between the press and people in power. He never considered the media the enemy of the people.
Dowd revealed that he once wrote her a note that characterizes his feelings about the press and how building friendships was a critical part of his character.
“Put it this way,’’ said his note to her. “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 and 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.”
Bush was a classic example of how to build, maintain and manage friendships. Respect friends, their time, their space, their ideas and their opinions. You don’t have to agree with them but don’t be manipulative or dishonest with them.
Being honest is always the best way of doing the right thing, no matter how much it might hurt. Bush showed that in a 1995 letter to the National Rifle Association (NRA) of which he was a lifetime member.
Wayne LaPierre, the NRA head, had written a mean-spirited letter to President Clinton condemning his administration’s 10-year ban on some semi-automatic assault weapons (the ban expired in 2004). It said the “ban gives jackbooted government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.”
Bush, gun owner, hunter and then retired in Houston, wrote LaPierre saying the NRA letter offended a “sense of decency and honor” and “indirectly slanders a wide array of government law enforcement officials, who are out there, day and night, laying their lives on the line for all of us.”
The letter said he was rescinding his lifetime NRA membership.
Times change, sometimes not for the better. But George H. W. Bush never forgot the advice of Aesop, the ancient Greek storyteller who wrote (personal pronouns changed to reflect our times):
“A person is known by the company he or she keeps.”