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Lambert: President Bush demonstrated character, leadership

President Emeritus Leo M. Lambert recalls what he learned from the 41st U.S. president during Bush's 2001 visit to Elon. 

By President Emeritus Leo M. Lambert

President George H.W. Bush’s passing has triggered a flood of memories about his visit to Elon in 2001.  Of course, it was an immense privilege to have him spend two nights with our family at Maynard House.  Even two, hard-to-impress school-age daughters remarked, “It’s kind of cool to have the President of the United States sitting in your family room in his bathrobe reading the newspaper.”

Lambert talks with Bush on the stage at Elon's 2001 Spring Convocation. 

​My impression of George H.W. Bush following his visit was that of a kind, intelligent, genuine and considerate man who never lost a deeply ingrained sense of humility, even after ascending to the highest office in the land. I have never wavered in that view. Even upon his arrival, he wanted to carry his own bag and learn how to use the coffee pot in the kitchen. (He told us Mrs. Bush had instructed him, “George, make your own damn coffee” after returning to private life in Houston; the days of White House stewards at the ready were clearly over.)

There are many happy stories to share about his two days on campus: the President working out in the fitness center on campus alongside Elon students; Professor Catherine McNeela’s music theatre students performing “Our Favorite Son” for Mr. Bush at a dinner celebrating the completion of the Elon Vision campaign; his splendid convocation address; and honorary degrees for the President and local textile and philanthropic legends Ernest and Maurice Koury. (Maurice’s honorary degree citation was read by legendary UNC basketball coach Dean Smith, who brought an additional element of stardom to the day.)

Two additional memories illustrate who George H.W. Bush was at his core.  When participating in a question and answer session with Elon students, an undergraduate asked him why he thought he lost his reelection campaign, especially after enjoying such popularity after the success of the first Gulf War.  Bush replied that while his opponent was hammering him with the ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ message, as president, he had a lot of data in front of him forecasting a major turnaround. 

But unlike his predecessor, President Reagan, whom he recalled as the “great communicator,” President Bush said he failed to get the message about better economic times to come out to the public. And then he said simply, “So I lost my job.”  He blamed no one else.  He took responsibility. And he eventually became close friends with the man who beat him.  That’s character.

President Bush was also a prolific letter and thank you note writer and I treasured receiving several from him. He understood that good leaders write to express gratitude—and even occasionally to offer an apology when needed. 

I often shared with Elon students that they should make a practice of writing personal, hand-written notes to thank people who have helped them—it is a great habit for life.  President Bush turned this practice into an art form. (Coincidentally, just this week, I gave Elon University archives several personal notes from President Bush to me for the University’s permanent collection.)

Civility.  Graciousness. Manners.  Humility. Intelligence. Selflessness.  I am grateful to the 41st President of the United States for sharing all of these qualities with our nation.

Owen Covington,
12/2/2018 1:10 PM