How ironic that the passing of a beloved public servant, who was told by his mother not to brag about achievements, should give the whole country the chance to brag on him.
As I watched the ceremonial send-off this week for former President George H.W. Bush, memory took me back to a chance encounter I had many years ago with someone who knew him well.
But before I tell that story, let’s think for a minute about what matters and what doesn’t.
Think about all the lovely things that have been said about the 41st president. Then think about the fact that this good man is considered — at least by one measuring stick — the least successful president in nearly 40 years.
Ronald Reagan won two terms, as did three presidents who followed — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.
Not Bush 41. He was defeated for re-election by Clinton in 1992. He wasn’t good at telling his own story and bragging about what he had done right, like liberating Kuwait and deftly managing the end of the Cold War. He was raised to be humble and share credit.
Clinton, Bush, and Obama were better at boasting. That’s what it takes to get re-elected. Bush 41 didn’t have it.
Yet, the former president had more going for him than that.
“George Herbert Walker Bush demonstrated the finest qualities of our nation, and of humankind,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan at a memorial service at the U.S. Capitol.
According to the many testimonials, those qualities included love of family, sense of duty, and service to country.
Also, he had an undying loyalty to his friends. Which brings me to the story of my encounter with one of Bush’s oldest friends.
It happened in Phoenix in 1999. Back then, it was widely assumed that George W. Bush was planning to run for president.
I was writing a metro column for the Arizona Republic, and my editor sent me to follow up on a rumor that the Texas governor had quietly crept into town for a high-priced fundraiser at a swanky hotel. I got to the hotel, and I tried to enter the building for a closer look. But I was turned away by Secret Service agents.
Secret Service agents? For the governor of Texas? Then, I figured it out.
George Bush was in town alright — but it was George H.W. Bush, a proud father raising money for his son’s presidential bid.
I decided to hang around for a while to see if I could catch one of the attendees on the way out. I did. I noticed this dark-skinned elderly man in a simple suit coming out of the hotel, and I asked him if he had been at the fundraiser. He smiled, and said yes. I could tell he was Mexican-American, and he could probably tell the same about me.
I asked his name, and he identified himself as Don Gaylien. Curious, I asked him how he had come to attend the event. Gaylien told me that former President Bush was his friend, and that the two had been friends for more than 50 years.
That explained why the 75-year-old Mexican-American retired postal worker seemed perfectly comfortable at such a posh event. After all, he was invited there personally by an old war buddy.
I just had to hear more, so I invited the man to lunch a few days later. There, he told me his story. And what a story it was.
We’ve all heard about how Bush joined the Navy at 18, just six months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and how he flew 50 bomber missions before his plane was shot down over the Pacific in September 1944. The young aviator parachuted out, landed in the ocean, paddled to a life raft that he inflated and flopped into, and then spent several hours drifting at sea until he was rescued by a U.S. Navy submarine.
Gaylien — this man sitting before me — served with Bush from 1943 to 1945 aboard the USS San Jacinto in the South Pacific and flew bombing missions in the VT-51 squadron. Bush was a pilot in one plane, Gaylien a radio man and gunner in another. When Bush was shot down in 1944, Gaylien was one of the radio operators who called in the submarine rescue of the man who would be president.
In all the many years that followed, Bush never forgot Gaylien. He would invite his old friend to special events like Bush’s 1988 presidential inauguration and reunions of the VT-51.
While Bush served in Congress, and as CIA director, and as vice president, and as president — and now as a former president, the two men remained in touch. Bush saw to that, reaching out over the years. Time and again.
The former president had personally invited him to the Phoenix fundraiser, leaving a comped ticket for him at the door.
Then, as if to prove that everything he said was true, the man pulled out a scrapbook with photos of him and Bush taken throughout the years — including one with the two of them on the day they met, on that submarine, in the middle of the Pacific.
I soaked up the story. And it gave me a new appreciation for the man we now celebrate — and a man, who as we have heard, cherished and nurtured his friendships.
In the end, what does it matter that he was lost this race, or won that one? What counts is that this was a decent man with solid values who lived a good life filled with the love of family and friends. That is plenty to brag about.
Ruben Navarrette is a contributing editor to Angelus and a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group and a columnist for the Daily Beast. He is a radio host, a frequent guest analyst on cable news, and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and host of the podcast “Navarrette Nation.” Among his books are “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano.”
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