A Father’s Tears

He stood there at the podium, the kind of podium he’d stood at 5,000 times in a long political life, and talked to the kind of audience he knew well: supporters and loyalists, old friends and new. He knew how to play them, how to use the old jokes and have fun. And suddenly he was sobbing.

He had referred to his son Jeb’s first campaign for governor. He had seen some “unfair stuff,” but Jeb “didn’t whine about it, he didn’t complain.” The old president began to weep. “The true measure of a man,” he then said, “is how you handle victory, and also defeat.” And here a sob tore out of him and he could not continue.

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It is not fully right, or fully fair, to guess about another’s emotions. But no one who knows George H.W. Bush thinks that moment was only about Jeb. It wasn’t only about some small defeat a dozen years ago. It would more likely have been about a number of things, and another son, and more than him.

Age exposes us, if we’re lucky enough to be given it. Some say it makes you softer, some tougher, some a mix of both. Some say it just leaves you more so—whatever you were, you are, only more. I thought of that the other day after I saw the news reports of 41’s speech. I went to a private dinner at the old Bush White House once, and the president, as he sprinkled pepper on his food, began to speak of his son Neil and “the pounding” he was taking in congressional investigations on the savings-and-loan scandal. He felt Neil was being abused for political reasons. Tears came to the president’s eyes, sudden and unbidden.

Afterwards I thought about the two presidents I had known. Ronald Reagan was emotionally moved by American history and the Founders, by the long sweep of history. Personal issues and relations left him more dry-eyed. His successor was enormously moved by personal relations, by his love for his children and parents and friends. But to him the sweep of history was more abstract; it didn’t capture his imagination in the same way. It left him dry-eyed.

Different strokes, different folks.

From what I have seen, growing older can leave you more exposed to the force of whatever it is you’re feeling. Defenses erode like a fence worn by time. But what you feel can surprise you.

You’re thinking about what was, and suddenly apprehending for the first time how important it was. You think of your son, age 3, on the lawn when you drove up that time. Once that memory touched you in some way you don’t fully understand, but now it makes your throat constrict because you realize that of all the things that ever happened to you, none was as important as how he looked on the lawn when you drove up that time.

Age reorders. The order is expressed by the mysterious force of a fragment of a moment. And there you are at the podium, mugged by a memory.

41Maybe there was some of those things in what happened the other day at the podium. But think of what a loaded moment in history it was for Bush the elder. Barely more than a day after he spoke, the Iraq Study Group’s report would be issued. It was chaired by his old friend, the one with whom he’d discussed serious things years ago only after the kids, George and Jeb and the others, left the room.

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Surely Mr. Bush knew—surely he was first on James Baker’s call list—that the report would not, could not, offer a way out of a national calamity, but only suggestions, hopes, on ways through it. To know his son George had (with the best of intentions!) been wrong in the great decision of his presidency—stop at Afghanistan or move on to Iraq?—and was now suffering a defeat made clear by the report; to love that son, and love your country, to hold these thoughts, to have them collide and come together—this would bring not only tears, but more than tears.

And the younger President Bush, what of his inner world? He has been shorn of much—his place in the winner’s circle, old advisers. A man who worked for Richard Nixon reminded me the other night that when Nixon fired Haldeman and Ehrlichman, “he lost his asbestos suit.” He lost his primary protectors and loyalists. President Bush is now without a similar layer. Old staffers gone, Rumsfeld gone, Cheney marginalized, Condi and Karen off representing. And the ISG. And the loss of Congress.

And yet the president presents himself each day in his chesty way, with what seems a jarring peppiness. A person who saw him in the White House a few days ago described him as “perky, seemed happy.” At the modest dinner for outgoing U.N. head Kofi Annan—one participant called it “stinting”—the president joshingly approached a guest. “I don’t see many friendly faces here!” he said, leaving the guest deadpanning later, “He mistook me for a friendly face.”

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Unlike anguished wartime presidents of old, he seems resolutely un-anguished. Think of the shattered Lincoln of the last Mathew Brady photographs, taken just weeks before he was assassinated. He’d gone from a bounding man of young middle age who awed his secretaries by his ability to hold a heavy ax from his fully outstretched arm, to, four years later, “the old tycoon.” Or anguished Lyndon B. Johnson sitting in the cabinet room by himself, literally with his head in his hands. History takes a toll.

But George W. Bush seems, in the day to day, the same as he was. It is part of the Bush conundrum—a supernal serenity or a confidence born of cluelessness? You decide. Where you stand on the war will likely determine your answer. But I’ll tell you, I wonder about it and do not understand it, either what it is or what it means. I’d ask someone in the White House, but they’re still stuck in Rote Talking Point Land: The president of course has moments of weariness but is sustained by his knowledge of the ultimate rightness of his course . . .

If he suffers, they might tell us; it would make him seem more normal, which is always a heartening thing to see in a president.

But maybe there is no suffering.

Maybe he outsources suffering. Maybe he leaves it to his father.