Two decades after his failure to project what he sneeringly called "the vision thing" helped drive him from office, President George H.W. Bush on Monday returned in triumph to the White House. In an irony he never could have anticipated, the printed program — bearing the seal of the president — proclaimed that President Obama had called the event a "celebration of ... the vision of President George H.W. Bush."
After all the years of complaining about vision questions and all the times Bush resisted even admitting he had a vision, here was a Democratic successor summoning Bush's family and many of those who served him here back to the White House to hail that elusive vision.
The occasion was the presentation of the 5,000th Daily Point of Light, an award that grew out of Bush's acceptance speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans. Perhaps the most important speech of that campaign, the then-vice president used it to delineate himself from Ronald Reagan.
"I want a kinder, gentler nation," he declared, adding, "We are a nation of communities, of thousands, and tens of thousands, of ethnic, religious, social, business, labor union, neighborhood, regional, and other organizations, all of them varied, voluntary and unique ... a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky."
Some mocked the speech — first lady Nancy Reagan reportedly asked pointedly, "Kinder and gentler than who?" — but it showed a side of Bush that had been obscured by the vice presidency and it gave birth to the Points of Light Foundation, which Obama on Monday called "the world's largest organization dedicated to volunteer service."
For the 89-year-old Bush, it was vindication unimaginable when he ended his service as the 41st president, and it drew to the East Room a large number of the key players in his administration.
"It's been a long time since I was in this room," joked C. Boyden Gray, who was Bush's White House counsel. Nearby were former Chief of Staff Andrew Card and Bush political strategist Ron Kaufman. In another row were Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and former Sen. Harris Wofford, D-Pa.
For the Bush veterans, the event had a definite poignancy, and a reality that none wanted to voice. The fear is that this may have been the former president's final visit to the White House, a place where he was such a presence for such a long time. It is unlikely that in the 42 years since 1971, any man was in the White House more than Bush. As U.N. ambassador, Republican National Committee chairman, envoy to China, CIA director, vice president, and president, Bush was a fixture in the building.
But there was no denying his physical decline even since his last visit. Then, in February 2011, Bush insisted on leaving his wheelchair out of public view and walking unsteadily into the East Room to receive the Medal of Freedom from Obama. This time, considerably more frail, he used the wheelchair throughout. And he made no attempt at a long speech. Bush spoke only 88 words. But for the 300-plus people in the room, those words showed that the event meant as much to him as it did to them. "It's like coming home for Barbara and me with the rest of you, just coming to this magnificent house," he said.
And, oh yes, there was that special fashion touch. "Just look at those socks," Gray exclaimed, pointing to Bush's red-and-white candy-cane socks. You might say that the former president was displaying a fashion vision. "He's trying to be a style-setter," joked the former president's son Neil. "The GQ man we're calling him, instead of 41."
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