The man I knew as Vishnu: remembering George H.W. Bush

8 December 2018

9:00 AM

8 December 2018

9:00 AM

The world knew him as ‘Bush 41’. I knew him by a different name -during the time I worked for him as his speechwriter when he was vice president.

In those days, the staff called him ‘the Vishnu’. (Bear with me.) It was his own devising. He’d been to India on a state visit, where they’d presented him, amid much pomp and ceremony and clanging of brass, with a statue of the four-armed Vedic deity.

Its plaque described the Vishnu’s numerous godly qualities, among them: omniscience, omnipotence, and his title ‘Preserver of the Universe’. Mr Bush immediately recognised a kindred godhead. He began referring to himself, in staff memos and aboard Air Force Two’s loudspeakers, as ‘the Vishnu’. In more intimate settings, simply, ‘the Vish’.

Thus I found myself on the plane, a lowly speechwretch, banging away at an –arrival statement, and over the speakers would come in grave, mock-heroic tones: ‘This… [Edward R. Murrow pause] is the Vishnu.’

After takeoff, if the visit had gone well, the same voice again came over to announce: ‘This is the Vishnu. [Pause] The Vishnu is well pleased.’ It had a certain Wizard of Oz-ness, which indeed was the intended effect.

We stopped calling Mr Bush that when he became president in 1989. Then, a few years ago, I stopped calling him ‘Mr President’ and defaulted to ‘the Vishnu’. It was obvious that he’d missed being called that all those years. Mr Bush may have been a Yankee blueblood establishmentarian, but he was always winking at you, even in the midst of a formal ceremony. He liked to give the -pedestal a kick or two.

After he left the White House and began using email, I wondered what the ‘flfw’ prefix of his email meant. The answer was ‘former leader of the free world’. Well, why not?

For a multi-armed, omniscient, omnipotent deity the Vishnu was the -kindest, most decent man I’ve ever known. And the most reticent when it came to self-advertisement. He recoiled from chest-thumping, or talking about the ‘introspection thing’, as he called it. This was, after all, a man who’d had his knuckles rapped by his mother at the Thanksgiving dinner table in 1980. Mr Bush had been regaling the -family with his adventures on the presidential campaign trail. Surely more interesting as a topic than, say, Cousin Bob’s landing a 6lb brown trout. But Dorothy Bush was having none of it. She interrupted him in mid–story and said: ‘George, stop it. You’re talking about yourself too much.’ The future leader of the free world obediently stopped.

As a boy, one of his nicknames — he had several — was ‘Have-Half’, after his habit of always sharing half his sandwich with whoever was there. Another was ‘Poppy’, followed years later by the somewhat more exotic ‘the Vishnu’. ‘Have-Half’ remained apt later in his life. As vice president, Mr Bush would stay over in Washington for Christmas rather than go home to Houston, so that his Secret Service detail could spend the day with their families. When, a few years ago, the two-year-old child of one of his Secret Service agents was stricken with cancer, Mr Bush shaved his own head bald in solidarity. There are dozens, scores, hundreds of such stories about George Herbert Walker Bush’s noblesse oblige — or as he called it, ‘noblesse noblige’.

Mr Bush’s critics were constantly yapping at him for being preppy. As the 1988 presidential campaign got underway, the war hero who’d been shot down while -flying his torpedo bomber into a maelstrom of Japanese flak found himself on the cover of Newsweek, ridiculed for what it called his ‘wimp factor’.

I never once heard Mr Bush chafe at the preposterous notion that he lacked walnuts. He was serene about his manhood. And why shouldn’t he have been? If you’d been to war as an 18-year-old pilot and seen death face to face; if you’d cradled your dying four-year-old daughter in your arms; drilled for oil in Texas; raised a family; been elected to the Congress; -headed the Republican party — during Watergate! — opened the first US liaison office in China; run the CIA; got yourself elected vice president of the United States… maybe you didn’t need to have your manhood -validated by smartass magazine -editors and the soft-faced thumb-suckers of the punditariat.

He was, to use a term that has suffered of late from desuetude, a Christian gentleman. Paradigmatically so. His love was total, unconditional. He embodied Shakespeare’s admonition that ‘Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds’. His soul was visible on his sleeve.

I was present in 2004 at the National Cathedral in Washington when Mr Bush, struggling through his eulogy to Ronald Reagan, came close to breaking down. I’d seen him lose it so many times. He’d choke up during the playing of the National Anthem at a baseball game. The Navy Hymn? Niagara Falls. For a flinty New -England blueblood Yankee, George Bush had the tear ducts of a Sicilian grandmother.

In November 1992 I phoned him at Camp David. It was a few days after his mother Dorothy had passed away. Just weeks before, he’d lost the presidency to the governor of Arkansas. Talk about a dark, drizzly November of the soul.

Dorothy Bush’s funeral was the next day. I asked if he was going to give a eulogy.

‘God no,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t do it. I’d choke up. I would be permanently ensconced as a member of the Bawl Brigade.’ The Bawl Brigade is Bush-speak for members of the family who cry easily. It -constitutes a majority of Bushes.

He told me: ‘I’d love to [give a eulogy] but I know my limitations. I even choked up here at Camp David last night. We had our choir singing. We had a little vespers -programme with Amy Grant. It was so beautiful, and I found myself choking up. We had a bunch of friends up here and “Oh God,” I said, “please hold back the floods.” ’

That was my Vishnu. I’m struggling now to hold back my own floods, but I’m also pinching myself as I contemplate my amazing good fortune in having known this splendid man.

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