04.26.09

My Other Mom and Pop

For this posting, I was going to write some well-reasoned gibberish about the First 100 Days, but instead I’m going to tell you about my new adoptive parents: George (H.W.) and Barbara Bush.

I can say this, now that my own beloved and irreplaceable parents are gone: George and Barbara Bush are parents anyone would kill to have.

For this posting, I was going to write some well-reasoned gibberish about the First 100 Days, but instead I’m going to tell you about my new adoptive parents: George (H.W.) and Barbara Bush.

They didn’t have much choice in the matter, and I don’t expect to be joining them and their five children around the family Christmas tree or anything. It was, as they say in Washington, a unilateral decision. But I feel much better having made it. It happened this way.

George H.W. Bush may be a World War II hero and New England Yankee blue blood, but he has the tear ducts of a Sicilian grandmother.

Mrs. Bush asked me to come and give a reading at the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy gala in Houston this past Thursday. This is her foundation’s 20th year. She has raised over $30 million.

I have known Mrs. Bush since 1981, when I went to work for her husband, writing his speeches. I confess that I was terrified of her—she was in every way a formidable New England lady. But I also, simultaneously, adored her. Everyone on the staff did.

So down to Houston I went, along with four other far more distinguished authors—Julia Reed, Jon Meacham, Ted Bell, and Cherie Blair—to read from our latest books in front of almost 2,000 people, all of whom had donated almost $2 million.

We have stayed in touch, the Bushes and I, over the years, and my affection for them has deepened. Every time he leaps out of an airplane to celebrate some birthday, I die a little. He is steadier on his pins than he was when I had last seen him in February, during a house party in the Dominican Republic, when he required a cane to get about.

His biographer, Jon Meacham, told me, “He’s been 65 for the last 20 years, and now he’s finally 84.” Mr. Bush is planning to jump out of another airplane this June, by way of celebrating his 85th birthday. (Don’t ask. Once a Navy man...) This time, he is planning to land on his church, St. Ann’s, in Kennebunkport, Maine. He says, “If it goes wrong, at least it’ll save money getting me to the graveyard.”

Mrs. Bush was, almost paradoxically, in superb health. I say “paradoxically” because she has had three major surgeries in the past year, one of them for a perforated ulcer, apparently life-threatening. When she went into the hospital recently to have a heart valve replaced with one from a pig, the head of the Bush staff sent out a mass email saying, “You don’t have to write. She knows that you love her.”

We do. But no one loves her more than her husband of—good heavens—64 years, who, at the hospital press conference afterward, broke down in tears.

Which gives me my deft segue to the adopted parents business.

At the event, I gave a reading from my new book, which is about the death of my parents. I recounted getting a call from Mr. Bush the day after my mother died. I wasn’t able to take the call, because I didn’t trust my emotions. (It’s embarrassing, breaking down in phone calls with presidents.)

I knew he would understand, because George H.W. Bush is a world-class weeper. He may be a World War II hero and New England Yankee blue blood, but he has the tear ducts of a Sicilian grandmother. The man cannot make it through the playing of The Star Spangled Banner on Opening Day.

I introduced my reading with the book’s epigraph, taken from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

Lady Bracknell: Are your parents living?

Jack: I have lost both my parents.

Lady Bracknell: Both? To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

Following that I said, “I’ve been careless. So, President Bush, Mrs. Bush, you’ll have to be my parents now.” It just came out.

I can say this, now that my own beloved and irreplaceable parents are gone: George and Barbara Bush are parents anyone would kill to have. To see them, surrounded by their children and grandchildren, as we did last Thursday night in Houston—14 grandchildren flew in as a surprise, all on their own dimes, to celebrate their “Ganny”’s 20th year of fundraising—is to be present at a kind of Platonic family ideal: love abundant, unconditional, joyous.

I looked over at Mrs. Bush when the grandchildren emerged from the wings. That brought tears to her eyes—an unusual sight. Her daughter Doro told me, laughingly, that at her own birth, “Dad sobbed.” (The Bushes lost a treasured first daughter, Robin, to leukemia at age six.)

“What about your mom?” I asked.

Doro laughed again, “Oh, no.”

But she was crying Thursday night. Unobtrusively, of course. For all her 60-odd years of being a transplanted Texan, Mrs. Bush is still a New England Yankee.

When I snuck a second peek at her, the tears were still streaming down her cheeks. But then she checked her watch. Mrs. Bush has a Mussolini side when it comes to Things Running On Time.

I have been on the receiving end of many blessings in my life, few as great as having known George and Barbara Bush. Or as I shall now be calling them, Pop and Mom.

Christopher Buckley’s books include Supreme Courtship, The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, and Florence of Arabia. He was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush, and is editor at large of ForbesLife magazine. His new book is Losing Mum and Pup, a memoir.

See Christopher Buckley in conversation with Tina Brown at the 92nd Street Y on Thursday, May 7 at 8 p.m.