TIME’s Hugh Sidey has a touching and amusing feature on President George H.W. Bush, who is rapidly approaching his 80th birthday.
Former President George H.W. Bush is the only person on this planet who can casually prowl by jet, ship and train the upper reaches of power from London to Beijing, dine intimately with heads of state, call the President of the U.S. when he wants, e-mail any of 14 grandchildren about school and baseball (“Astros might go to the World Series”), talk details with a handyman making repairs on the house that has been his spiritual home for eight decades, track menacing chipmunks in the flower beds and then turn and embrace a visiting billionaire.
Not to mention at 5:30 one recent morning bang on a houseguest’s bedroom door, elbow it open and deliver a tray of hot coffee and grapefruit wedges and then trumpet the start of an adventure that would in a few hours take him inside the roaring wind tunnel at Fort Bragg. There, in the levitating blast of air, he grins and trains for free fall from an airplane, looking like Buck Rogers (his era) in helmeted black zip-up, forming an untethered star with half a dozen new buddies of the Army’s Golden Knights Parachute Team. “It’s the greatest,” he says.
Bush the Elder has, in my view, surpassed Jimmy Carter for the title “The Greatest Ex-President, Ever.” I was certainly no fan of Carter the president, but there’s a lot to admire about Carter the man. His charitable work, most notably with Habitat for Humanity, and his work as a roving ambassador for peace and democracy has been impressive indeed. Unfortunately, he has lately often crossed the line ex-presidents never should and gotten too mired into current political controversies. Elder statesmen need to stay above the fray.
While I twice voted for and admired the elder President Bush, and was happy to have him as my Commander in Chief when he sent me off to war, his presidency was mediocre. He surrounded himself with Do Nothing types like John Sununu and got outflanked too often by congressional Democrats unafraid to play hardball. I’ve always thought he’d have been a much better Prime Minister than President, as he never had a taste for the rough and tumble of politics and, indeed, was pretty hamhanded and reluctant when he had to engage in it. (Indeed, the same could be said for Carter.)
Almost immediately after being defeated for re-election in November 1992, though, Bush almost magically transformed into the man we see today. He’s amazingly magnanimous and self deprecating. He has become the role model for aging men everywhere and, indeed, puts most of us less than half his age to shame with his physical energy and courage. Just as the sight of an ex-president in coveralls swinging a hammer served as a model a generation ago, the image of an elderly ex-president jumping out of perfectly good airplanes is an inspiration in an age where men live much longer than they’d ever dreamed. Bush 41 is the role model Alpha male for the geriatric set, unashamedly showing his emotions as he reflects on people sacrificing their lives one minute and gleefully jumping with the Golden Knights, with the enthusiasm of a teenager, the next.