They served as presidents 200 years apart, but a common code links the legacies of George H.W. Bush (1989) and George Washington (1789). Civility and good manners are the hallmarks of their leadership style. Chivalry was their secret weapon, especially in delicate situations.
Six days after Bush’s death on Nov. 30, 2018, former Newsweek editor Evan Thomas published a Yahoo opinion article titled, “I called George Bush a ‘wimp’ on the cover of Newsweek (October 1987). Why I was wrong.” Thomas explained that he used the term wimp against his writer’s wishes. The article coincided with Vice President Bush’s announcement of his campaign for president.
Although Newsweek’s wimp article emotionally wounded Bush, a war veteran shot down during World War II, how Bush behaved in the article’s aftermath in 1988 revealed one of his best character traits and secret weapons: civility and good manners.
In the fall of 1988, Bush received a distressful letter from Newsweek reporter Tom DeFrank, who’d complained about the lack of access for a book he was writing. This letter bothered Bush, who believed that all reporters should be treated fairly, even Newsweek, even after their wimp cover.
“I have made very clear to all concerned that Newsweek is to be treated with total fairness. Newsweek reporters are to be granted the same access and shown the same courtesy as others,” Bush politely and passionately replied to DeFrank on Sept. 6, 1988. He had his limits, however. “When it comes to going beyond these guidelines into giving Newsweek special consideration . . . I just can’t do that.”
He believed if he gave DeFrank special access to internal memos and other behind-the-scenes documents and events, he’d be letting Newsweek walk all over him, confirming their wimp assessment, which was written by Margaret Gerrard Warner, not DeFrank. DeFrank accused Bush of singling him out for retribution.
“My position is not based on ‘retribution.’ Getting even is not part of my makeup,” Bush explained in reply. “Fair access, unfailing courtesy, benefit of the doubt–yes; but proving their ‘Big W’ point–never.”
Wanting to maintain a good relationship with DeFrank, Bush deftly empathized with him. “But back to my respected friend — Thomas DeFrank. I’ll be damned if I’ll diminish a friendship over this sorry matter; and I’ll be damned if you will be diminished professionally.” Bush suggested that DeFrank talk it over with James Baker, who’d resigned his position as Treasury secretary to join the campaign. DeFrank’s voice had been heard.
Bush learned his good manners from his mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, who told him after a presidential campaign event in 1988 that he talked too much about himself on the trail. When he was a child boasting about a sports, she reminded him to praise the team instead of himself.
He also passed this chivalrous code of conduct to his sons, optimistically writing them a joint letter on July 23, 1974, during the height of the Watergate scandal: “Don’t confuse being ‘soft’ with seeing the other guy’s point of view,” he said, and “Civility will return to Washington eventually.”
Throughout his life, Bush employed this secret weapon of empathy and politeness. Like Bush, Washington developed his code of civility in his youth. As a teenager, he copied a book called “110 Rules of Civility and Good Behavior.” Among these rules are number 50, “Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any” and number 79, “Be not apt to relate news if you know not the truth thereof.”
Washington, like Bush, used his good manners to smooth over ruffled feathers and delicate situations. The Gazette of the United States announced on Sept. 30, 1789, that, “The president of the United States has been pleased to nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate . . . Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State.”
But Washington had yet to ask Jefferson if he wanted to be secretary of state. The reason was understandable. At the time, Jefferson was on a ship sailing from France to United States to take a break from his diplomatic post in France to tend to his neglected Virginia farm, Monticello.
“But grateful as your acceptance of this commission would be to me, I am at the same time desirous to accommodate to your wishes,” Washington wrote Jefferson, giving him room to reject the offer.
Needing to woo him, he wrote Jefferson again. “I feel such delicacy and embarrassment,” Washington wrote on Jan. 21, 1790, as an apology for nominating him before asking him. Then he put on some charm. “I know of no person, who, in my judgment, could better execute the duties of it than yourself.”
He then added the one thing he didn’t think Jefferson could refuse: flattering his ego. “I think it necessary to add one fact, which is this, so far as I have been able to obtain information from all quarters, your late appointment has given very extensive and very great satisfaction to the public.” Jefferson accepted.
Historians often compare presidents by what they have in common. Bush deserves to be compared to Washington in this area. They both tapped the chivalrous code of their generations. Unlike other presidents, who prioritized what they would do for Americans, Bush prioritized how he would lead.
With the toxic nature of social media today, we could all benefit from Washington’s and Bush’s sense of civility by sending and receiving messages that are more polite. Like Washington, we can “Be not apt to relate news if you know not the truth thereof.” Like Bush, we can listen to someone’s difference of opinion and not “confuse being ‘soft’ with seeing the other guy’s point of view.”