Lessons from a President

Unique to our experience in the United States is the way we honor our presidents at death.

Over the course of our 200 plus years, we have had 45 presidents. Forty of them have died. In my lifetime their funerals have always been honorable celebrations of the president’s life. They have been unifying and not divisive. They have inspired deeper patriotism. They elicit gratitude from citizens of a nation whose presidents, except for very few, have died of natural causes.

When they die the nation hails them as men of great accomplishment and strength of character. The honor these public servants receive is not governed by current politics. It is a result of the respect for the office of the leader of this nation, whose system of government has lasted for almost two and half centuries, and whose existence has never been threatened by a violent transfer of power from one president or party to another.

We are blessed to be citizens of this great nation.

All this came to mind as I watched the funeral of President George H. W. Bush. He was hailed as a hero of war, an effective president, and an honorable statesman.

I watched as people close to President Bush proudly and clearly described him as such. Those words serve to encourage a nation and hopefully, to inspire a few women and men to achieve similar heights of personal and professional accomplishment.

What really struck me is that the memories that brought the most emotion from the speakers were the ones that spoke of President Bush as a husband, father, grandfather, and friend. If a speaker broke down during his or her remarks about the president it was because they were relating a personal memory.

Several things came up more than once.

The president’s relationship with Mrs. Bush was held up as a model marriage. Their son, the second president Bush, described them as growing old together as many people do. Their love grew deeper and their companionship more constant.

The younger Bush recalled spending time together playing golf, boating, or relaxing in their home in Maine.

President Bush was hailed as a caring man who took time genuinely to know the people around him, whether they were paid staff or international leaders. Several anecdotes of his going out of his way to welcome or help a friend were related.

It is amazing that a man who occupied the most powerful office in the world at a time of incredible international change would best be remembered as someone who cared most for the people closest to him. It is perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from him.

It’s a pretty safe bet that no one reading this article will have as consequential a career as President Bush did. Even so, he always put great effort into the close relationships in his life. Doesn’t it make sense that we should do the same?

We are tempted to think that we will be best remembered for great accomplishments. President Bush’s funeral reminds us that the best, longest lasting and most consequential memories in terms of generational change are the ones our spouse, children and close friends have about us.

Make a commitment to put more time and effort into those primary relationships than you do into a career or other areas of broader influence. It is within our closest relationships that we will find our greatest fulfillment and most lasting significance.