For better or for worse, I can’t think of President George H.W. Bush, who passed away last week, without also thinking of the well-known impression of him performed for years on Saturday Night Live by comedian Dana Carvey. Not because it made fun of the president — though poking fun at the person in charge is a time-worn American tradition we should all get behind more often than not. But because of what Bush himself thought of the impression and the person behind it, and all that seemed to indicate about what resided in the former president’s heart.
Most can recall Carvey in his Bush 41 get-up, performing, as he described it, the mash-up of Mister Rogers and John Wayne that seemed to perfectly capture, in caricature at least, the former president’s unique delivery.
Bush himself appreciated how important it was to recognize and enjoy the humor to be found even in the words and actions of serious people, even during serious times. “The fact that we can laugh at each other,” Bush said, “is a very fundamental thing.”
Consider the time and place that line was uttered. Not long after losing his re-election bid in a rough and tumble (at least by that day’s standards) race against Bill Clinton, Bush gathered his staff in the White House for what they thought would be a Christmas message delivered by their boss. Instead, Bush had arranged for Carvey to come out and do his best, signature “Not gonna do it,” among other recognizable Bush-parodying lines. The comedian also explained how he’d arrived at that Rogers/Wayne amalgam to capture Bush in a way that’s lasted and been looked on fondly since.
The “kinder, gentler” president perhaps inspired a more good-natured, less spiteful brand of satire than we often see these days. What the brilliant Carvey came up was also a little smarter than most of what passes for political humor in 2018, at least in my book. They broke the mold with George H.W. Bush, as many have opined this week — but there aren’t exactly Dana Carveys growing on trees.
The comedian and the former president became closer in the years after Bush left the White House, and after hearing of Bush’s passing Carvey — who once told Bush he hoped he had never “crossed the line” with his impression — wrote a simple but telling goodbye. “When I think of those times what I remember most is how hard we would laugh,” he said. “I will miss my friend.”
The wall-to-wall coverage every network has carried of the former president’s life has reminded us all of the remarkable body of public service work he compiled over decades in political and post-political life. Odd as it sounds to say, he was far more than just a president. He was a pilot who flew heroically in World War II, he served in Congress, was director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was Ronald Reagan’s vice president and later as president, helped lead the nation through the end of the cold war.
Many have talked of his ability to build consensus and relationships over the course of his life and career. Bush even famously befriended Bill Clinton, the man who ended his presidency, as the two of them were called upon as a pair of former presidents to engage in charitable and relief efforts around the world.
We lose something every time a former president dies. Most people’s thoughts go to moments of historic significance, and that’s certainly appropriate where President Bush was concerned. Almost everything he has been lauded for was far more important than a relationship he had with a comedian who developed a memorable impression of him.
But the rare moments that offer us glimpses of who presidents are as people often don’t come when they’re dealing with world affairs, or during times of crisis. It can be something smaller, like how they react to someone who is, indeed, poking fun at them. Don’t we all hope the people we put such trust in are big enough, at least, for that?
John Dilmore is editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this column are those of the author.