DeVos: Judge Bush by how he treated others

Dick DeVos

History tells soaring tales. It tells of a combat pilot in the Pacific theater awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism under fire — for delivering a payload and completing a mission in a bomber engulfed in flames, only moments before it plummeted to the depths of the sea.

History testifies to staggering global accomplishment. It etches in the eternal record the successful leadership of a man at the epicenter of the universal fight for human freedom, in defense of his own nation against an evil empire, and in defense of neighbors he would never meet half a world away.

George H. W. Bush holds up Alissa DeVos to better see singer Lee Greenwood while standing next to President Gerald Ford in 1988 at a campaign stop in Grand Rapids.

Late last Friday evening, George H.W. Bush was reunited with his wife Barbara and daughter Robin, and for the first time saw the face of God. Historians have spent the succeeding days reflecting on the life of a president — and father of a president — a World War II bomber pilot, and a devoted family man.

For me, what will always stand out about President Bush wasn’t the remarkable record of public service, but the graciousness with which he lived.

At the end of a campaign rally only days before he was elected president in 1988, Bush, during a performance of “God Bless the USA,” spontaneously scooped up our oldest daughter, Elissa, and held her up so she could see over the crowd on the dais.

It was a remarkable moment, and not because a candidate for office held a child. The baby-kissing politician is a worn cliché for a reason. It was a remarkable moment because of who else was on the stage. Bush, then the vice president, was directly flanked by Grand Rapids native and former President Gerald Ford, and wildly popular west Michigan Congressman Paul Henry. They were surrounded by the state’s biggest Republican movers and shakers, but instead of lifting their arms, or wrapping himself in the embrace of those who could do something for him, he chose to help a small girl see a little better.

President Bush lived a life commanding the world’s largest stages, but his focus and attention were very often on the smallest and most personal moments. Those he met were important to him, and he made sure they knew it; not by calling a television truck or mentioning it in a rousing speech, but by investing in them his personal time and focus.

Much has rightly been written in recent days about the kind letter Bush left in the Oval Office for his successor on Inauguration Day in 1993. The preponderance of his correspondence, though, was to individuals much further removed from the spotlight. You’re unlikely to ever read it in the newspaper.

It has been estimated that Bush wrote and sent tens of thousands of personal notes and letters over the course of his life. He wrote notes of encouragement, gratitude and exhalation to everyone from heads of state to campaign volunteers who’d helped staff a rally. He delivered missives to loved ones, and he wrote letters to individuals he met for only a moment and who he was unlikely to ever meet again.

The letter writing was a habit, but it was also a testament to his enduring graciousness. He exalted our nation to be better — for each of us to take a personal responsibility to illuminate a dark world with a thousand points of light. In this, each day, he led by example.

President Bush was a man of incredible character, integrity and compassion. He modeled graciousness on the biggest stages, and on the most personal. May that one day be said of us all.

Dick DeVos is chairman of Grand Rapids-based Windquest Group and a longtime Republican activist.