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Thank you, Mister President

December 7th, 2018 by Stephen Bauman

As recounted by Sarah Kaufman in a recent Washington Post article, President George H.W. Bush was a prolific writer of thank you notes. Nothing was too small or too large to warrant a warm response from the President. “To the Marine who dropped his rifle in a parade at the Marine Barracks, in front of his commander-in-chief and first lady Barbara Bush, Bush wrote: ‘I want to thank you and the others in the platoon for a super performance . . . Please thank all involved in the drill.’ To his granddaughter, on the day she was born: ‘I am a happy Gampy because you’re here.’

Kaufman explains, “Bush was one of the modern era’s great letter writers. This old-fashioned virtue became his hallmark, an endearing practice and a pragmatic one as he fostered warm connections with world leaders, potential allies and even his opponents. He knew that compassion and kind manners help a person establish strong and positive relationships. He held dear the core diplomatic belief that a leader should make friends, not enemies — and that leadership and civility are mutually reinforcing.

“When former president Jimmy Carter wrote in a statement Saturday that Bush’s ‘administration was marked by grace, civility and social conscience,’ we can look to the 41st president’s thank-you notes as evidence [which] carried over into how he wanted the country to be seen. Throughout his letters are traces of the ‘kinder and gentler nation’ he called for in his inaugural address — not just traces, but one man’s steps in that direction, by turns firm, tender and heartfelt.

“‘I felt the Bush tears (we do cry a lot) coming on,’ the president wrote to Mike Deland, a leader in the disabilities movement, after he signed the Americans With Disabilities Act into law. As he looked out at the audience that day, he wrote Deland, he felt ‘tears of gratitude for your example, for your cheerful way and for your being at my side.’

“He wrote so many cards and notes that they fill a 700-page book, “All the Best, George Bush,” which serves as his memoir. Bush found the idea of writing about himself distasteful. Modesty was ingrained in him, a legacy of his … upbringing with its emphasis on self-restraint and good manners. That’s also at the root of his thousands of thank-yous and other notes he popped in the mail throughout his long career.”

Turns out he also kept a diary. The night he lost his bid for reelection, Bush made an entry to help himself get past the pain of defeat. He set out a to-do list of sorts, goals on how to behave in the coming days. Among them: “Comfort the ones I’ve hurt and let down.”

“Be strong, be kind, be generous of spirit, be understanding,” he continued, “and let people know how grateful you are.”

Impressive mentoring of values that matter. And uplifting and dignifying. I feel better for just having typed this out. I didn’t always agree with this president (along with all the others), but this quality of humble gratitude stands out among the officeholders during my lifetime. Seems important to highlight this in bold italics. We could use a good dose of humble, civil gratitude.

And this matches well to the season of Advent as we prepare to receive a great gift. What’s the status of my heart’s gratitude quotient? How good am I at saying thanks to the people who populate my life and work? How gratitude-oriented am I in relation to God and to the mission I’ve claimed, namely, to love very well, God and neighbor. How sacrificially generous am I? How mindful of so many who have so little mired in many privations?

Unexpectedly our former president’s eulogists prompt the searching questions… and I’m grateful.

Stephen Bauman

Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Bauman is the Senior Minister at Christ Church.