The George Bush I Came to Know

During those checkered three decades when I avoided real work by, instead, writing sports columns and books, I was privileged to have interaction with many famous and powerful individuals. Among the most impactful and telling were those several times when I shared moments with the late George H.W. Bush.

Those moments spawned and increasingly confirmed my view of President Bush as not only a man of high integrity, but endearing and genuine humility. Unlike too many egotistical coaches and overpaid me-me-me athletes I often suffered, President Bush exuded the aura of the unpretentious man next door.

My first personal exposure to him came in the Bay Hill Club locker room the day before he lost the presidency to Bill Clinton.He had just completed his final rallies in central Florida and decided to spend the rest of the afternoon with old friend Arnold Palmer. He chatted warmly with those of us in the room, then asked Arnie if someone could give him a ride to the Orlando airport. Like one of us great unwashed, he had planned to fly commercially to Houston that evening to cast his vote the next day and join his family and staff to watch the election returns. The sitting president??!! Trudging through a busy airport and finding his seat next to his two-man Secret Service detail??

Arnie would have none of it. Over Bush’s objections, Palmer made a quick call and, within hours, personally flew Bush to Houston in Arnie’s executive jet.

I was aware that Bush — an avid golfer despite his bedeviled putting — served as honorary U.S. team captain at the Ryder Cup matches at the Brookline Club outside Boston and became enamored with gregarious champion golfer Payne Stewart. While walking along observing one of his teammates’ matches, Stewart spotted George and Barbara Bush sitting inside the gallery ropes by a large tree. Knowing how approachable Bush was, Payne stopped, sat down and chatted at length with them. The friendship would grow with each additional encounter. 

A few years later, while writing a book about Payne after he perished in a plane mishap, I managed to get a request to  the ex-president, asking if he would consider writing the book’s foreword. He agreed and roughed out his thoughts on Stewart in a personal letter that is now framed and cherished above my desk.

In simple, but moving declarative sentences, he expressed his admiration for Payne and deep remorse for his premature death. “Barbara and I will always treasure that private little visit” at the Ryder Cup, he wrote, adding: “We were touched by his warmth and his humor … What a lovely man. Everybody who knew him, everyone who loves golf will miss him for years to come.”

There was a humble P.S. scrawled at the bottom: “Please correct my spelling or grammar if needed.”

In a more recent time, I found myself at tony Sea Island Club in Georgia, researching a magazine piece on the club’s very upscale new golf clinic instructed by two PGA Champions Tour stars. When I noticed from my hotel window a long line of sheriff’s cruisers stopped near the hotel entrance, I asked and was told it was for security for ex-President Bush, who would be addressing an economic conference that evening at the hotel. He thanked the sheriff for his concern but asked that the troopers be dismissed for “more important” duties so that other hotel guests would be at ease to chat. 

I found him in the lobby doing exactly that. I re-introduced myself as that pest who hounded him into writing that Payne book foreword. He brightened and generously applauded the book, thanking me for the signed copy I had sent. Then came the humor and that omnipresent humility: “I hope that (foreword) didn’t cost you too many sales,” he laughed.

To the contrary. When I told my publisher that Bush had committed to the foreword, he was ecstatic and declared that little “With Reflections by President George Bush” at the bottom of the dust jacket would reap an “additional 10,000 book sales.” 

The publisher underestimated Bush’s strong appeal. The book made several best-seller lists.

This post originally appeared in the Orange Observer, December 2018.