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You have probably seen the famous photo of a high school-aged Bill Clinton meeting President John F. Kennedy (I’ve included it, in case you haven’t). In the photo, you’ll see that Clinton (and the boys around him) are wearing polo shirts with the emblem “Boys Nation,” a mock government/civics program that has been run by the American Legion since 1946. Boys Nation is the follow-up program of Boys State, where rising high school seniors are competitively selected and then sent for weeklong participation in elections at every level (city, county, state), in governing exercises, and in drafting/debating legislation. State politicians and leading community leaders visit to lecture and inspire. At the conclusion of the week, the entire “state” gathers and elects two Senators to send to Washington, D.C. for an additional (all-expenses-paid) week of mock government, only now at the federal level. In Washington, not only do “senators” meet their actual Senators and Representatives, debate legislation, run a presidential election (between the Nationalists and the Federalists), and shadow officials who mirror their own mock appointments, but they also get taken to all the major monuments and museums.
Most importantly, they get a Rose Garden ceremony with the president.
Well, except in my year.
In 1985, I was selected by my Girls State peers to attend Girls Nation (the female equivalent of Boys Nation), run by the American Legion Auxiliary. Girls Nation was truly amazing, and it made my first time in Washington magical: I rode with my Representative on the underground train to the House floor to vote with him; I got to sit behind one of my Senators, chair of the appropriations committee, in a hearing; I spent an entire morning with the Treasurer of the US (also from my state); and much, much more.
But in summer 1985, Ronald Reagan had surgery. Boys Nation got to meet him, but we girls were out of luck. They tried to give us an extra nice White House tour, but it just wasn’t the same. No Rose Garden, no presidential photo. Major disappointment all round.
Nevertheless, we were still having incredible opportunities, such as being taken to a performance at the Kennedy Center on our penultimate evening. Our concert was the phenomenal Loretta Lynn. During the show’s intermission, I began looking around since, during our time–and being massive political junkies, we had spotted lots of famous politicians. I wondered if anyone else might be in the audience. Looking up to the balcony, I thought I spotted the Vice President and said to a friend, “Hey, isn’t that George Bush?”
“I don’t know,” she said, “but that white-haired woman is definitely Barbara.”
Naturally, I decided we had to go up and try to meet him. Most of the other girls were skeptical, but a hearty band of about 8 followed me up the stairs to find the vice president.
(At this point, I need to pause and tell you that the American Legion Auxiliary ladies–and they were ladies–made us wear dresses almost all the time. Dresses to which were affixed long ribbon-y things that said “Girls Nation,” topped with a button with our state’s name. Yep.)
In this get-up, I approached one of the Secret Service guys and told him our tale of woe: how we didn’t get to meet Reagan or see the Rose Garden, etc etc, and couldn’t we please meet Vice President Bush. The Secret Service guy gamely said he couldn’t promise, but he’d go check.
The intermission wore on, and the Secret Service guy never came back. Half the girls gave up. The lights warning of the intermission’s conclusion began to flicker.
And then, just as we were turning around to go back to our seats, the door to the balcony opened and Secret Service lined up on either side to reveal George H. W. Bush himself.
In a pre-selfie age, I didn’t get a picture with him (though, while he was talking to us, I did take a badly focused picture of him with a little disposable camera), but the image is (clearly) one I’ve never forgotten. He greeted us enthusiastically–never seeming like we were opposing on his evening. Mostly, I remember how interested he was in each of us, how unhurried as he spoke to us together and then in turn. How he commiserated with us about not getting to go to the White House. How extremely gentlemanly he was, apologizing that Barbara had had to stay with their guests (even while telling us everyone else who was in the box). As he learned where we were from, he offered tidbits that he knew about each place, making each one of us feel like our hometown was known and appreciated. He was genuinely warm and, yes I’ll say it, nice. For five teenage girls, it was the highlight of the entire trip.
Of course, this experience came to mind with Bush’s passing on Friday. Like all of us, his legacy is complicated, and he has already become the subject of what Frank Bruni in the New York Times yesterday called the “obituary wars,” where “[w]e like our villains without redemption and our heroes without blemish, and we frequently assign those roles in overly strict alignment with our ideology.” Bruni goes on to argue that “we do seem to be getting worse at complexity. At nuance. At allowing for the degree to which virtue and vice commingle in most people, including our leaders, and at understanding that it’s not a sign of softness to summon some respect for someone with a contrary viewpoint and a history of mistakes. It’s a sign of maturity. And it just might be a path back to a better place.”
Part of nuance, part of complexity, part of that “path back to a better place” is telling as much of the story as we can. I think that too often translates, however, to telling as much of the “bad” part of the story as we can. And there’s always plenty of that–in all our stories.
So we need to say it, good and bad. I want to make sure, though, to acknowledge the part that was good, that was noble, that was generous. In the telling of a president’s life, making time to say hello to a teenage girl and her geeky government friends does not rate. But Wordsworth declares in “Tintern Abbey” that the “best portion of a good man’s life” is “[h]is little, nameless, unremembered, acts/Of kindness and of love.” Today, as George Bush is honored for his grand commitment to serve the nation, I give thanks for a man whose little act of kindness so long ago is not yet unremembered.