George H.W. Bush: Life, Liberty, and the Attainment of Happiness
In the spring of 2001, I received a call from my friend Patrick Dillon, then a California-based Forbes magazine editor who was preparing a year-end special issue. Pat wanted to know if it was possible to get U.S. presidents to speak or write about the enduring American concept of “the pursuit of happiness.”
The iconic phrase comes to us from Thomas Jefferson’s preamble to the Declaration of Independence, the finale in the famous trilogy (after “life” and “liberty”) that Americans consider our birthright. Having covered the White House for the better part of a decade, I was intrigued by the challenge of trying to get the current and four former presidents to expound on the idea.
I’d heard all five of them -- Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and the younger Bush -- allude in speeches and interviews to the Preamble. Ronald Reagan had, too, although by then the Gipper was lost to the mists of Alzheimer’s. But what did they really mean when they talked of pursuing happiness? How did the words motivate them personally?
As I began trying to corral the world’s most exclusive club, things went about the way you think they’d go: Jimmy Carter’s operation was too dysfunctional to respond, for instance, while Jerry Ford agreed immediately to be interviewed. Bill Clinton signed on, although he wanted to do it his way: Clinton asked if he could write an essay about TJ instead, explaining that his own middle name is Jefferson. Although Bush 43 was busy running the country, he finally agreed, via White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, to give me some quotes. The surprise was Bush’s father: As spring turned to summer, I couldn’t get a commitment. Finally, in early August, he turned me down flat.
Naturally, Bush was supremely polite about it. Jean Becker, his chief of staff, called to express her regrets, adding that the 41st U.S. president wished me success on my project. As lovely a person as Jean Becker is, this didn’t set well with me. “My project,” I pointed out, “is interviewing former presidents.”
Becker understood my frustration -- but there was only so much she could do. Still, I had another idea. “Listen, Jean, anyone who celebrates his 75th birthday by parachuting out a perfectly good aircraft because he did it as a young Navy combat pilot when the plane was on fire over the Pacific, well, that man knows something about happiness the American people need to hear,” I told her. “Let’s do this: Tell your boss what I just told you -- and write down what he says in response. Then read it to me and I’ll use that.”
She charmed me by laughing aloud -- and agreeing to try. I then went into a staff meeting in my Washington office. When I came out an hour later, there was a voice mail from Becker saying that she’d done what I asked and that Forty-One had changed his mind on the spot. Bush wanted to write an essay for the magazine piece on what the pursuit of happiness means to him after all. Would next Friday be too late?
Next Friday was fine, I told Jean Becker, who was at George Herbert Walker Bush’s bedside this past Friday night when he passed over to the other side.
“Dear Carl,” Bush’s August 9, 2001, missive began. “You ask about Pursuit of Happiness at a good time in my life. I have pursued life itself over many years now and with varying degrees of happiness. But now, at 77 I find that I am perfectly content to let history be the judge of those things I got right and of my mistakes in life as well.”
He cited the great joy he derived from his children and grandchildren and in his relationship with the love of his life – his wife, Barbara – and from his career, too.
“Mine has been a happy life,” he said. “In competitive business I was very happy -- though restless and somewhat driven. In politics I had victories and defeats but for the most part I was happy. In big government jobs here and abroad I was fortunate to get to live my life’s creed, which says public service is a noble calling.
“As president I knew the challenges and liked them; I worked hard to do my best, to accomplish things of magnitude. All through those business and political years I was pursuing goals, trying to accomplish things, trying to have my life be one that benefits others. Now I no longer pursue happiness. I have happiness – great happiness.
“Some of it still comes from trying to be in my own small way a true ‘point of light.’ I believe I was right when I said as president, there can be no definition of a successful life that does not include service to others. I do not seek a Pulitzer Prize. I do not want press attention. I do not crave sitting at the head table or winning one of the many coveted awards offered by the many organizations across the land.
“No, I have found happiness,” he added. “I no longer pursue it, for it is mine.
“Pride in my family guarantees that,” Bush continued. “Having one son be the president of the United States may say it all, but it doesn’t. Our governor son in Florida is part of this, because through him and the president I can still be a part of the vast political scene. But my happiness stems, too, from our other two sons and our only daughter, from all five spouses and 14 grandchildren. Much of my true happiness stems from watching those grandkids and fishing with them and challenging them and teasing them.
“And there’s Barbara Bush. With her I pursued my happiness before we were married way back in early 1945, but now there is no pursuit. Our happiness together is locked in. It is, as they say in golf, a gimme. It is strong, unbendable and rock solid.
“So let the great philosophers and those who still strive to be something pursue and write of that pursuit. For those not quite there yet, I say, ‘Pursue happiness until you find it. The pursuit must include helping others, giving of yourself to a cause bigger than yourself, and it must surely include love of family.’
“Some think there is no pot of gold at the end of that striking rainbow,” George Herbert Walker Bush wrote in conclusion. “Life is that rainbow, and having pursued happiness during my life, I have found it; it will be mine until the day I die.”
This would have been a nice way to end my story, but less than a month later those hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 Americans were killed, and Bush’s eldest son was thrust into the role of wartime commander-in-chief.
Worried that the president’s father would find it jarring to read words he’d written before 9/11 that weren’t published until after, I reached out again to Jean Becker, thinking Bush might want to change what he’d written. She suspected he might, too. We were both in for a surprise.
Under a heading marked “POSTSCRIPT,” here is what George H.W. Bush sent me:
“I wrote this ‘pursuit of happiness’ essay before the tragic events of September 11th. When…asked [if] I wanted to revise it to reflect my post-September 11th thoughts, my first thought was that I probably should. But as I reread this, I realized that the ‘pursuit of happiness’ is truly one of our inalienable rights as Americans. It’s just as important now, as it was when I wrote this, that all of us participate in and celebrate one of our most treasured freedoms. It’s just one of many reasons why I am so proud to be an American.”
Thank you, Mr. President. Rest in peace, sir. You earned it.