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David Shribman: On the subject of loss, and the lost art of letter writing

He was getting older, he worried about losing his balance fishing on the end rocks, and his hearing was failing him. So was his short-term memory. He could recall, surprisingly vividly, how the bottom of his mother’s feet looked, but he forgot the names of some of his houseguests. He was going to bed earlier, and waking up earlier, too. Three times people told him his zipper was undone.

So George H.W. Bush did what he has done so often, what came so naturally to him. He sat down and wrote a letter, this time to his children. One was the governor of Florida, another was the governor of Texas and two years from the White House. No matter. He started the letter “Dear kids.”

That was 15 years ago and Bush was 74 years old. But he sensed what was happening — “This year if I turn fast, I wobble” — and he wanted to share his experience, his perspective, with his children.

“I remember a lot of detail about all five of you when you were little — all happy memories I retain; but alas I am vague on recent details in your lives,” he wrote. “I am passionately interested, but factoids escape me.”

Scores of Bush’s letters were assembled a dozen years ago in a book called “All the Best,” his signature sign-off. The book was reissued Tuesday with letters written since the original publication, including those covering the election of his eldest son to the White House, the terrorist attacks of 2001, and his remarkable reconciliation with the man who defeated him in 1992, Bill Clinton.

The result is a revealing look at the 41st president, repudiated by the voters in his re-election bid but rediscovered, even revered, by Americans in recent years and basking in a new revisionism as he approaches his 89th birthday.

In the White House, he delighted in telling reporters he resisted being put on the psychiatrist’s couch — Bushspeak for an aversion to introspection — but the new letters suggest otherwise. In them he looks at the presidency, politics and the new world order he helped create in 1989 with a clarity suggesting he possessed “the vision thing” — another unforgettable chestnut from the Bush argot — all along.

But it is his experience and sobering confrontation with aging that is perhaps the most poignant revelation.

He found he was growing impatient about little things, like finding a videotape of Bambi or of “that horrible Simpson family” in the case where he expected to find his Hitchcock film, or about happening upon a can of 7Up “barely sipped — and left to get stale and warm.” This offended his Yankee frugality, bred more along Maine’s rocky coast than perhaps in his Greenwich, Conn., childhood.

These days when he rides his boat down the coast to Barnacle Billy’s in Ogunquit, Maine, the former leader of the free world orders the hot dog. The lobster roll is too expensive.

The message in Bush’s letter wasn’t the impoverishment of loss, but the richness of longevity. While he didn’t “expect to be on the A-team any more,” the old master of the mixed metaphor told his children he wanted “to be there for you if you get a bad bounce in life, and no doubt you will for the seas do indeed get rough.”

Bush was known for “Read my lips” (on taxes) and for “This will not stand” (on Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait), but perhaps he should be remembered, too, for how he closed his letter to his children:

If I shed tears easier now try not to laugh at me, because I’ll lose more saline and that makes me feel like a sissy, and it might make my mouth dry later on, and might be bad for digestion, too. And besides, it’s OK to cry if you are a man — a happy man (me) or a man faced with sadness or hurt (not me). Hey, don’t point the first finger at whoever is shedding the tear because all Bushes cry easily when we’re happy, or counting our blessings, or sad when one of (us) gets bruised or really hurt inside.

In 2000, the Bushes decided to move the remains of their daughter, Robin, who died of leukemia at age 3 in 1953, to College Station, Texas, where the couple has a burial plot. In a letter to his pastor, Bush said his tears that day weren’t the tears of “devastation, loss and pain” he experienced when she died. “Instead,” he wrote, “they were tears of gratitude that we had her at all and maybe even tears of joy that she was still with us.”

The day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks he wrestled with issuing a statement, as former President Gerald R. Ford and Clinton did. “It is not easy ... to sit on the sidelines now, not easy to not make decisions or take actions,” he wrote. “But I must continue to stay out of the limelight, out of the news, giving quiet support to No. 43.”

Then there is the letter he wrote to his first great-grandchild, Georgia Helena Walker Bush, when she was born 18 months ago. Here is the entire text:

I haven’t seen you yet and I love you already — more than tongue can tell. You are one very lucky little girl. You have two wonderful parents who will always be with you and love you. You have grandparents who feel the same way. And you have two really old guys, great grandparents, Barbara Bush and me, who worship the ground you will be walking on and who will be for you, at your side, for as long as we live.

So have a wonderful happy life, dear Georgia.

He signed it: “Gampy.”

The Postal Service will tell you that letter volume is down. The epistolary novel, dating to the 18th century, is a relic of another time. But as long as Bush is alive, the ancient literary genre of the letter still breathes.

The letters that the second president, John Adams, exchanged with the third, Thomas Jefferson, are part of the classic literature of our country. The letters the 41st president shared with Americans of all trades and outlooks — the last presidential letters, you might say — also are an American treasure. All the best ...

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Email him at