PINEVILLE, La. (BP)–Evoking the “kinder and gentler” phrase that identified his presidency, former President George H.W. Bush spoke at the centennial celebration of Louisiana College Oct. 26 about the things that matter in life.
He talked about friends, family and the satisfaction of public service to a packed chapel audience of students, faculty, guests and media at the Pineville campus and gave much the same humor-laced speech at a luncheon an hour later in nearby Alexandria to benefit the college’s general scholarship fund.
“The message I tried to convey as president and the same gospel I try to preach today is that there can be no definition of a successful life that does not include service to others,” Bush said. “You don’t have to be president to be a leader; you don’t have to be first lady to make a difference, to touch the touch the lives of your fellow man. All you have to do is care, roll up your sleeves and claim one of society’s problems as your own.”
Bush recounted that his mother “taught me to help the other guy.” After making the winning goal in a soccer game as a youth, Bush said she focused more on “the team” instead of his personal success.
One of the most exciting things he’s done in his life, Bush said, was helping a friend start the YMCA in Midland, Texas, in 1952.
“I’m an optimist about America,” the former president said. “To me, one of the unchanging foundations that has kept this nation strong and free and a beacon of hope to the entire world after 230 years of change and challenge is the innate propensity, the natural inclination of Americans to help one another in times of need,” Bush said, noting the generosity of Americans in tsunami relief in Asia and recovery from the Katrina and Rita hurricanes along the Gulf Coast.
Bush said he was in New Orleans a month ago and, several months earlier, was there with former President Bill Clinton in their partnership to raise money to help in recovery efforts.
“[A lot] of people there are still hurting,” Bush said. “We’ve got to roll up our sleeves and help.”
Of his partnership with Clinton, Bush said, “I’m pleased that the [current] president asked President Clinton and me to partner up. And to be honest, I like President Clinton. We have divergent views on politics … but when it comes to doing something bigger than ourselves, we’ve enjoyed working with each other. I hope it sends a good signal….
“My point to the young people here today is because you run against some guy, that doesn’t mean you have to be enemies in life…. I’ve enjoyed the association because I think we’re having a positive impact.”
The former president’s voice choked when describing what he has seen in Asia’s tsumani-ravaged regions.
“The hardest part was seeing the children,” Bush said, after describing the picture a little girl had drawn for him that showed an angry sea, a boat in a tree floating by and, in the distance, one tiny face. The child had watched her mother be overtaken in the tsunami, a teacher explained. “The kids were innocent victims and they have nothing left in this world, so Clinton and I were trying to help.”
During his 24-minute talk, he told a lighthearted story about how, early in his son’s presidency, the new president came in sweaty from a run and plopped down in his parents’ bedroom, as is the family’s habit at the end of each day, to read a newspaper.
“George, take your feet off my table!” Barbara Bush said, her husband recounted. “I said, ‘Darling, the guy is president of the United States of America. It may be hard for you to realize that, but he is.’
“‘Oh, never mind,’ she said. ‘He knows better than that.’”
Encouraging the students not to shy away from public service, Bush acknowledged, “Many are down on public service because it is so ugly and mean.”
But, he said, “The press has their job to do and these able members of the United States Congress have their job to do and they’re mature individuals. They don’t let the criticism get them down and I can assure you the president of the United States of America does not let the criticism that comes every single day get him down. He’s strong, principled; he has my support. Of course he has my support with every fiber in my body.” Extended applause filled the college’s Guinn Auditorium at those words.
He reminded the chapel audience that many times through American history -– the Civil Rights era as one example -– politics has been meaner than it is today, but, he added, “I do think the country wants more cooperation between people of opposing views and opposing parties.”
Bush said if he had the power to do anything differently in his presidency it would be to find ways to strengthen the American family and be more open about the role of personal faith. He bemoaned the fact that activist courts have been working to remove God from the national fabric.
“Get involved,” Bush exhorted. “If you don’t, you leave it to people who might not be as well motivated as you are…. Get involved in your community…. At age 82, time is a friend to no one. I had my chance and did my very best…. I loved every minute -– almost every experience -– of these 40 years [in public service], but at the end, it’s about family -– not history, not titles, not wanting to sit at the head table. The three most important titles are father, grandfather and husband. And friendships and faith also are vitally important.”
During the chapel service, an honorary doctor of humanities degree was conferred on the former president by the college, which is affiliated with the Louisiana Baptist Convention. College President Joe W. Aguillard, noting that a world leader helped mark Louisiana College’s centennial celebration, said, “Our college, students, faculty and staff, as well as our alumni and churches around the state, are quite deserving of such a once-in-a-lifetime honor.”
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. John Yeats, the convention’s director of communications, contributed to this article.