“Dear young friend,” the letter began. I wish I could remember more, but I was in such shock at receiving an envelope with the White House listed as the return address that the rest of the content eludes me. What mattered to me was that it was signed by President George H. W. Bush.
OK, so even at 11 years old I recognized that it was the standard form letter for when some kid writes to the president (I had written him a couple months earlier asking for his views on capital punishment to help me prepare for a school debate; his response did not address the issue, and I’ve chosen to believe that was why the opposing team wiped the floor with us), but it meant the world to me. I can still remember waiting for Shabbat to end so I could open the thin envelope that had arrived that afternoon.
Bush, who died Nov. 30 at 94, was my first president. Not literally — I was alive for the entirety of Ronald Reagan’s tenure and most of Jimmy Carter’s inauspicious single term — but I followed the 1988 presidential campaign from the outset. Even today I can recite the order of the finish in the Iowa Caucus: Then-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole came in first, with televangelist Pat Robertson second, and Bush a disappointing third.
I wish I could point to a solid reason for being one of the two or three students in my class in a Massachusetts Jewish day school to support Vice President Bush over our own governor, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, but then again, fifth graders aren’t generally known for their considered political opinions. Whatever the rationale, I rooted for Bush like I rooted for the Red Sox — constantly and passionately.
A part of me would always maintain my youthful affection for Bush, but my feelings became more complicated in the four years that followed his resounding electoral triumph. As I got older and better informed, I learned that the president was ambivalent about approving loan guarantees to Israel, and pushed back hard against Congress and many Jewish lobbyists on the issue. Even more, I felt betrayed over Bush’s demand that Israel refrain from responding to the 39 Scud missiles Iraq had fired at the Jewish state during the Persian Gulf War. Perhaps this was the birth of the trend of American presidents urging Israel’s “restraint” after attacks within its borders (I believe George W. Bush was the only ensuing president to buck this trend). And I was disturbed that the president was willing to hold open talks with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, legitimizing the terrorist group.
But with the benefit of time and the slow release of previously unknown information, it’s clear that despite some notable hiccups, Bush was a friend to the Jews, and to Israel.
Moreover, he was a mensch. Since his death, tributes have flooded the internet with anecdotes describing his basic goodness and the respect he commanded even though he holds the lamentable distinction of being the only president since Carter to serve just one term. Bush as vice president and later president played a key role in bringing thousands of Jews out of the Soviet Union, Ethiopia, and Syria. Abraham Foxman, the former national director of the ADL, called him a “great tzaddik”; and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his people “will always remember his commitment to the security of Israel.”
George Herbert Walker Bush, in some ways a man of contradictions, was both the U.S. leader at the helm when the Cold War ended and the one largely blamed for a painful recession and high unemployment. He clashed with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir yet was instrumental in rescuing Soviet Jews. He was the commander-in-chief who punctuated an overwhelming military victory by garnering the highest approval record ever — 89 percent— as well as the incumbent bounced out of office with just 37 percent of the popular vote.
Bush was somehow a rousing success and a cautionary tale, a friend and an adversary, a warrior and a wimp, and finally a loser who would live to be respected by his fiercest rivals and most outspoken critics. I wouldn’t have understood this 30 years ago when I inexplicably jumped on the Bush bandwagon, but for so many of us the totality of Bush’s life and its contradictions — his successes, failures, indiscretions, and ultimately, his grace in defeat — are a reflection of who we are today, and they represent who we hope to be by the time it’s all over. On some level, even a fifth grader can relate to that.
This column is dedicated to the memories of Dr. Mark Schwartz, Moshe Yehudah ben Shlomo Yitzchak, of New Haven, Conn., a patriarch of one of the strongest families I’ve known; and Ernie S. D’Agnelli, better known as Mr. D., a physical education instructor, mentor, and friend to hundreds of students over more than 40 years at the Maimonides Day School in Brookline, Mass.
Contact Gabe Kahn via email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or Twitter: @sgabekahn