George H. W. Bush’s letters show his “kinder, gentler” side

An epistolary wizard.
An epistolary wizard.
Image: Reuters/Larry Downing
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Former US president George H.W. Bush died on Friday night (Nov. 30), aged 94. Throughout his long life, he was a prolific letter writer, leaving behind a veritable library of handwritten pages. They provide a glimpse into the kind of man—and president—he was.

When accepting his party’s nomination for the president of United States in 1988, he called for a “kinder, gentler” nation. At the time it became a widely-mocked refrain, but today it has been remembered as a credo for a different, far less acrimonious era in Washington.

Despite his generally lauded legacy, Bush was not always kinder, gentler himself. His 1988 campaign included one of the most harmful political ads of all time: the Willie Horton video spot, which employed race-baiting and contributed to America’s overly punitive attitudes toward crime. He also had his fair share of shady deeds.

Throughout both the good and bad times, Bush continued to put pen to paper. Letter-writing was such an important part of his life that his 1999 memoir, All the Best, George Bush, is told largely through letters. They show a level of personal tact and consideration that’s hard to find in today’s politics.

Here’s a selection of his epistolary legacy, including

  • a love letter to his then-fiancee, Barbara,
  • his principled resignation from the National Rifle Association,
  • and the world’s most polite “thanks, but no thanks” interview-request decline.

A love letter to “Bar,” written in 1943, when he was a 19-year-old serving in the US Navy during World War II

My darling Bar,This should be a very easy letter to write — words should come easily and in short it should be simple for me to tell you how desperately happy I was to open the paper and see the announcement of our engagement, but somehow I can’t possibly say all in a letter I should like to.I love you, precious, with all my heart and to know that you love me means my life. How often I have thought about the immeasurable joy that will be ours some day. How lucky our children will be to have a mother like you —

As the days go by the time of our departure draws nearer. For a long time I had anxiously looked forward to the day when we would go aboard and set to sea. It seemed that obtaining that goal would be all I could desire for some time, but, Bar, you have changed all that. I cannot say that I do not want to go — for that would be a lie. We have been working for a long time with a single purpose in mind, to be so equipped that we could meet and defeat our enemy. I do want to go because it is my part, but now leaving presents itself not as an adventure but as a job which I hope will be over before long. Even now, with a good while between us and the sea, I am thinking of getting back. This may sound melodramatic, but if it does it is only my inadequacy to say what I mean. Bar, you have made my life full of everything I could ever dream of — my complete happiness should be a token of my love for you.Wednesday is definitely the commissioning and I do hope you’ll be there. I’ll call Mum tomorrow about my plan. A lot of fellows put down their parents or wives and they aren’t going so you could pass as a Mrs. — Just say you lost the invite and give your name. They’ll check the list and you’ll be in. How proud I’ll be if you can come.I’ll tell you all about the latest flying developments later. We have so much to do and so little time to do it in. It is frightening at times. The seriousness of this thing is beginning to strike home. I have been made asst. gunnery officer and when Lt. Houle leaves I will be gunnery officer. I’m afraid I know very little about it but I am excited at having such a job. I’ll tell you all about this later too.The wind of late has been blowing like mad and our flying has been cut to a minimum. My plane, #2 now, is up at Quonset, having a camera installed. It is Bar #2 but purely in spirit since the Atlantic fleet won’t let us have names on our planes.Goodnite, my beautiful. Everytime I say beautiful you about kill me but you’ll have to accept it —I hope I get Thursday off — there’s still a chance. All my love darling —Poppy

A letter to his parents, also from his time in the Navy, written in 1942

Dear Mum and Dad,

…The only thing wrong with this place is, they don’t realize the average intelligence. They hand out so much crude propaganda here. It is really sickening — Many of the men here realize it — also the intelligent officers. Stuff like “Kill the Japs — hate — murder” and a lot of stuff like “you are the cream of American youth.” Some fellows swallow it all. These are the fellows many whom are below average intelligence, 2 of my roommates, for example, get a big kick out of hearing it. Maybe it is good. All the well educated fellows know what they are fighting for — why they are here and don’t need to be “brainwashed” into anything…

Much love, Pop

The oft-shared note left for Bill Clinton, the man he lost the 1992 presidential election to, written in 1993

A letter of resignation sent to the NRA, written in 1995, and published in the New York Times

Dear Mr. Washington,

I was outraged when, even in the wake of the Oklahoma City tragedy, Mr. Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of N.R.A., defended his attack on federal agents as “jack-booted thugs.” To attack Secret Service agents or A.T.F. people or any government law enforcement people as “wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms” wanting to “attack law abiding citizens” is a vicious slander on good people.

Al Whicher, who served on my [ United States Secret Service ] detail when I was Vice President and President, was killed in Oklahoma City. He was no Nazi. He was a kind man, a loving parent, a man dedicated to serving his country — and serve it well he did.

In 1993, I attended the wake for A.T.F. agent Steve Willis, another dedicated officer who did his duty. I can assure you that this honorable man, killed by weird cultists, was no Nazi.

John Magaw, who used to head the U.S.S.S. and now heads A.T.F., is one of the most principled, decent men I have ever known. He would be the last to condone the kind of illegal behavior your ugly letter charges. The same is true for the F.B.I.’s able Director Louis Freeh. I appointed Mr. Freeh to the Federal Bench. His integrity and honor are beyond question.

Both John Magaw and Judge Freeh were in office when I was President. They both now serve in the current administration. They both have badges. Neither of them would ever give the government’s “go ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law abiding citizens.” (Your words)

I am a gun owner and an avid hunter. Over the years I have agreed with most of N.R.A.’s objectives, particularly your educational and training efforts, and your fundamental stance in favor of owning guns.

However, your broadside against Federal agents deeply offends my own sense of decency and honor; and it offends my concept of service to country. It 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.

You have not repudiated Mr. LaPierre’s unwarranted attack. Therefore, I resign as a Life Member of N.R.A., said resignation to be effective upon your receipt of this letter. Please remove my name from your membership list. Sincerely, [ signed ] George Bush

Excerpts from a letter written to journalist Todd S. Purdum in 2006, declining an interview

“This is a tough letter to write. Obviously after many years in the ‘arena’ we’ve done some due diligence. Everything we have heard about you is wonderful. ‘Straight shooter,’’No agenda,’’Fair,’ even ‘Balanced’ as in ‘Fair and Balanced.’…

…But can I be frank? I have been distraught in the treatment the New York Times has given my oldest son, The President. Maybe it is just the pride of a father in a son; but when The President is savaged day in and day out not just on the op-ed pages or in editorials but also supposedly objective news coverage, I hurt. Call it guilty by association if you will, but I worry.’…

…So I better not do the interview. I will sit here by the sea talking back to the TV set, probably feeling bad that I have turned down a reasonable request from a good man But I would never forgive myself if, in some small way even, I added to the burdens of this son of whom I am so very proud.”