The president known for calling for a “kinder, gentler” America, and the last one to have fought in World War II, was shaped by a deep faith in God, a Birmingham-born author says in a new biography.
President George H.W. Bush, and his wife, First Lady Barbara, were both shaped by Christian principles that guided their lives, and deaths, said the Episcopal priest who was their pastor and officiated their funerals.
“Who they were grew out of their faith,” said the Rev. Russell Levenson, rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston. “They believed in our Lord Jesus as our Savior.”
For them, it was not a political tool.
“I never witnessed, read about or experienced any way in which they used their faith for politics,” Levenson said. “It formed and shaped their service.”
Levenson, former associate rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Mountain Brook from 1993-97, has written a book on the subject published this month, “Witness to Dignity: The Life and Faith of George H.W. and Barbara Bush.”
Levenson, rector of the former president’s home parish of St. Martin’s in Houston since 2007, watched the Bushes handle their later years with a dignified grace that others can learn from, he said.
“They were faithful,” Levenson said. “Faith was part of his life journey; hers as well. They believed.”
World War II
Bush enlisted enlisted in the U.S. Navy when he turned 18, trained as a pilot and flew a Grumman TBF Avenger, a torpedo bomber that could take off from aircraft carriers. He flew his first combat mission in May 1944, bombing the Japanese-controlled Wake Island. On Sept. 2, 1944, Bush piloted one of four airplanes that attacked Japanese installations on Chi Chi Jima. His aircraft was hit by heavy anti-aircraft fire and the engine caught fire. He completed the attack, releasing bombs over the target, then flew away from the island with the engine still on fire before bailing out. His two other crew members, a radioman and gunner, died, including one whose parachute did not open. Bush waited four hours in a raft before a submarine picked him up. During 1944 Bush flew 58 missions and completed 128 carrier landings.
Levenson said that experience shaped him like his faith.
“When he was shot down as a 19-year-old man, he was asking in that moment, and on the submarine that picked him up: ‘Why did God spare me? Two guys in the plane with me didn’t make it. I did. Why?’”
Bush felt God spared him for a reason, which included public service.
“That story from the war was always pretty fresh on his mind,” Levenson said. “Why did God spare me? He knew death was part of life. He wanted to get the most out of life that he could.”
After he was sworn in as president, Bush promptly led the nation in prayer.
“I have just repeated word for word the oath taken by George Washington 200 years ago, and the Bible on which I placed my hand is the Bible on which he placed his,” Bush said at his inauguration. “We meet on democracy’s front porch, a good place to talk as neighbors and as friends. For this is a day when our nation is made whole, when our differences, for a moment, are suspended. And my first act as President is a prayer. I ask you to bow your heads.”
This was his prayer:
“Heavenly Father, we bow our heads and thank You for Your love. Accept our thanks for the peace that yields this day and the shared faith that makes its continuance likely. Make us strong to do Your work, willing to heed and hear Your will, and write on our hearts these words: “Use power to help people.” For we are given power not to advance our own purposes, nor to make a great show in the world, nor a name. There is but one just use of power, and it is to serve people. Help us to remember it, Lord. Amen.”
Former Secretary of State James Baker remains a faithful parishioner of St. Martin’s, Levenson said. The two Episcopalians often made the White House a place of theological discussion.
“Often before the major decisions he made, he would call together people to pray,” Levenson said of Bush. “Before the Gulf War, he and James Baker would discuss Augustine’s just war theory, and whether it met that standard.”
One lesson to be learned from the Bush family is that they remained friends with political rivals despite disagreements, Levenson said.
“He believed we could disagree and still be friends; a lot of people forget that,” Levenson said. For George Bush, it was, ‘This is where I am. This is the reason I am there. I’ve come to my position because of certain reasons.’ That kindler, gentler watchword was something he lived by.”
Kinder, gentler is a Christian approach to life and one Levenson says the nation needs to embrace again.
“It’s a reflection on the way they carried out their public service,” he said. “It does speak to our own time.”
The Bushes invited the Levenson family to vacation at the presidential family home in Kennebunkport – they traveled there about a half dozen times from 2008-2013, and the family always made them feel welcome, he said.
“They really became like grandparents to my kids,” Levenson said. “It was like going to visit your friends at Lake Martin.”
There are no perfect people, and he’s not claiming George and Barbara were, he said.
“I know they weren’t perfect,” Levenson said. “They lived out their faith. They worked across the aisle with everybody. He and Bill Clinton became the kind of friends who were able to work together despite political differences. I never heard him say a negative word about someone with whom he disagreed.”
Levenson said that he expected Bush to be disappointed in 2008 when Republican nominee Mitt Romney lost his presidential bid to Barack Obama.
“He said, ‘No, this is the man that’s been elected,’” Levenson said. “We’re going to get behind him and he’s going to do a good job.”
For Bush, the focus was not on political enemies.
“He really treated people with decency, concern and character,” Levenson said. “He was always about doing the right thing. At the end of the day, people saw he was taking positions out of his principled belief. I don’t think he had enemies at the end.”
Death and afterlife
Levenson recalls the former First Lady, knowing she was dying, choosing not to go to the hospital. She discussed it with her priest, asking that she receive only comfort care.
“What my body is saying is I’m ready to go to heaven,” Levenson recalled her saying.
Barbara died in her Houston home at the age of 92 on April 17, 2018.
Barbara and George both fully expected to be in heaven after their deaths, Levenson said.
“The president and Barbara believed that,” he said.
After his wife’s death, former President Bush looked at death as a doorway he would soon pass through.
There, he hoped to be reunited with Robin, their daughter who died at age three in 1953.
“His view of death was not one of fear, not one of angst,” Levenson said. “He said, ‘What do you think heaven’s like?’ We sat there and talked about it. He said, ‘Do you think I’ll see Robin?’ That alone said a lot. He believed in heaven. He wasn’t afraid of leaving.”
After a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, the former president died at his home on Nov. 30, 2018. He was 94.
Levenson recalled the funerals for Barbara and George in 2018 unifying events for the nation.
“It was beautiful, sweet and touching,” Levenson said. “They brought Houston together. They brought America together.”
Levenson said his hope in writing the book was to lift up two people worthy of being followed for their leadership and faithfulness and service to the country.
“Nostalgia makes us look backwards,” he said. “It can also make us say, should things be that way. Should we not think we need to get back to that better way?”