By Lynn Paris
The George Bush Presidential Library and Museum:
Sitting in the stands at the Grand Reopening of the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, perhaps the most striking thought to cross my mind was, “It’s not about me.”
It was a beautiful day, and crowds filled the front lawn of the Library. The 41st President, perhaps because he had intentionally made this a day for his family and the people rather than a repeat of the original Opening—complete with former presidents and first ladies and all the pomp and circumstance that went along with it—still did not want to disappoint. So he marked this Opening with a surprise, his sixth sky dive, appearing first as a speck amidst the puffy clouds in the otherwise azure sky, until we could almost see his beaming smile as he floated down onto the Library lawn. It was quite a spectacular way to make an entrance for anyone, much less an 83-year-old man.
The master of ceremonies for the Event was Jim Nance, the well-known and highly respected sportscaster, as well as a close friend of the Bushes. President Bush said he was like a member of the family, but this is a family that has welcomed hundreds into its embrace. Also speaking was General Brent Scowcroft, the President’s brilliant former National Security Advisor and another “family member,” as well as the president of the senior class at Texas A&M, a young man who embodied the famous Aggie spirit and whose future—based on his stirring performance and the company he keeps—looks absolutely golden. Finally George H.W. Bush briefly addressed the crowd. He was, as usual, warm, modest, and exuberant about his redesigned Library, most especially with all the “interactivity,” exactly what he’d requested when the project began. And then the band played, and the doors were opened to the public.
Those of us for whom the Library had become a full-time career for the past two and a half years might have experienced a pang or two as it was handed off to the people. We received no special recognition, no introductions or applause. It was, I imagine, a tiny bit like giving up your baby to an adopting couple in a quiet room that no one else sees; it was the right thing to do, but it hurt nonetheless. Still, we got everything we had ever hoped for, and for that ego must be pushed aside and gratitude expressed.
When we began the project we prayed for two things. We prayed that our work would glorify God, meaning that we would do it to the absolute best of our ability, always treating each other and others respectfully and with kindness, and always keeping in mind that we couldn’t do it at all without His constant guidance and support. We also prayed that our work would honor President Bush, a man of compassion and integrity we had come to admire tremendously, and that in the end, he would be pleased with our efforts. And both of those prayers were answered.
And what an amazing job to have had the privilege to work on. After all, there are very few people who have been given this kind of rare opportunity. Behind the scenes, the depth of the collections and archival material is overwhelming, as is the dedication and knowledge of the archivists and curators working with them. I was able to pour over all the letters written by the young George Bush to his family and friends from his days in the Navy; even then he was always thoughtful, kind, and deeply respectful. Was this simply symbolic of a more courteous era, or the mark of an adolescent who would grow up to be an ever-courteous and thoughtful man?
Later, throughout his often demanding and time-consuming career, his letters stand out like beacons, drawing us closer to him. How many of us would take the time to write a charming letter to a grandchild about their soccer game or school play in the middle of a tense negotiation or a presidential campaign; how many would stop to express their gratitude to a friend, even as they were going through their own personal turmoil. President Bush left a legacy of letters that reveal to us who he is as a man, and it is one that sets an example for us all.
I also had the opportunity to peruse previously classified documents and film footage, at times feeling like a voyeur on history, history that was part of the fabric of my own life, but about which I knew so little. It’s that way for most of us. We read what is fed to us by journalists, or listen to the one-minute sound bite on the nightly news, but none of us has any idea what really happened, why certain decisions were made, or the thought and deliberation behind what seems like the simplest choice. I learned the unbelievable complexities of decision-making at the highest reaches of power, and I will never look at the news the same way again.
Some personal highlights along the way include my private meeting with Brent Scowcroft, known to be not only a brilliant policy-wonk but also a tough critic. He was the last person to have to sign off on the Situation Room scripts I’d written, and I was told it would be an intimidating experience. It wasn’t. He was charming and insightful, and when he challenged something I’d written and I told him I’d taken it straight from his book, he laughed and said, “then it must be right.”
I also had the pleasure of watching the former First Lady escort Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his wife through the museum, smiling with delight as she told them personal anecdotes I’d never have known about some of the photos we used from her albums. I took a group of docents on a tour and they told me it was the best museum they’d ever seen. That was fun, even though I knew they didn’t get out much! Mostly, though, it was getting to learn about history from the inside, and getting to know about a man beyond his public persona. It was a rare privilege.
So it is with some embarrassment that I admit to the partial let down now that it’s over. Because however noble our prayers, my humanity couldn’t help but rear its head, and there was a part of me that wanted to take a bow, or be up on the podium having the President shake my hand and say, “Well Done,” or at least have a reporter shove a mic under my mouth and ask me to tell him or her all about all my hard work on the project. But in the end, it wasn’t about me.
It was about making the President happy. It was about doing justice to the story of a man who had devoted his life to public service: in the Navy, as a Congressman, as our Ambassador to the United Nations, as the Chief Liaison to China, as the Director of the CIA, as Vice President, as President and as a Private Citizen still involved with serving others. It was about making the people who hired us look good. It was about justifying the money donated by all those who contributed to the Library. It was about giving a gift to the local community, as well as to the global one. It was about doing our job.
But it wasn’t about me.
me your opinions at LParis@netlistings.com