A president with a poet’s eye

He lodged in the public’s affectionate imagination as a sometimes tongue-tangled verbal bungler, the president who once called the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band the “Nitty Ditty Nitty Gritty Great Bird.” But put George Herbert Walker Bush in front of pen and paper, or behind a typewriter or computer keyboard, and he could see the world with a poet’s eye.

When he left the White House, President Bush 41 wrote no conventional memoir, but chose instead to tell the story of his full, rich life in his letters “and other writings,” as he put it. It was a wise choice, and those letters — by turns whimsical, serious, witty and moving — prove a lasting measure of a man who was always deeper than his surface good manners and aversion to public introspection and self-promotion suggested.

He sometimes signed himself “Con afecto” — “that’s Spanish,” he explained — but his prose was anything but affected. Like him, it was vigorous and earnest, playful and direct, and when he closed letters to his children with the single adverb “Devotedly,” and the terse noun, “Dad,” as he invariably did, it was clear how much he loved them.

“This should be a very easy letter to write,” he told his fiancée, Barbara Pierce, just before Christmas 1943 when their engagement was announced. “But somehow I can’t possibly say all in a letter I should like to. I love you, precious, with all my heart and to know that you love me means my life. How often I have thought about the immeasurable joy that will be ours some day. How lucky our children will be to have a mother like you —”. When she died after 73 years of marriage, he was holding her hand.“There is about our house a need,” he wrote to his mother in 1958, five years after the death of his three-year-old daughter, Robin, from leukemia. “The running, pulsating restlessness of the four boys as they struggle to learn and grow; the world embraces them…all this wonder needs a counter-part. We need some starched crisp frocks to go with all our torn-kneed blue jeans and helmets…We need a legitimate Christmas angel — one who doesn’t have cuffs beneath the dress. We need someone who’s afraid of frogs. We need someone to cry when I get mad — not argue. We need a little one who can kiss without leaving egg or jam or gum. We need a girl

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