Letter to the editor: Remembering George H.W. Bush

Michael J

On George H. W. Bush

To the editor:

The nephew of George H.W. Bush graduated from Williams in 1996, which is why we were able to get the former president as commencement speaker.  Bush by this point was something of a cliché, a one-term president remembered mostly for the uncanny way that Dana Carvey imitated his wooden speaking style on Saturday Night Live.  As he mounted the stage, protected by Secret Service agents concealed in academic robes, the students eyed him curiously.

Before the commencement address, there were three talks by students, and the last speaker startled us.  He opened with the customary salutation (“parents, friends, honored guests, members of the class of 1996”), began his speech, and then interrupted himself: “Excuse me; I committed a faux pas.  I forgot to acknowledge that we have a distinguished president on stage.”  He repeated the salutation, adding one more name: “and our distinguished college president, Hank Payne.” 

Nervous laughter rose from the gathered parents, and he gave a sheepish look: “Yes, I know.  That was very rude of me.  I should have mentioned that we have a distinguished ex-president here on stage.” Again he launched into his salutation, this time adding the name of “our distinguished former president, Frank Oakley.”  There was an audible gasp.

The studied snub earned Bush considerable sympathy, and when he rose to speak, there was vigorous applause.  I sat behind him, off to the side, where I was surprised to see that he had no prepared text, merely an index card on which he jotted some notes during the ceremonies. 

His talk was folksy and genial, in the well-known Bush manner, and I remember little about it.  But I do recall the deft and seamless way in which he incorporated the remarks of the student speakers into his talk, identifying them with affable asides, e.g.,  “As X told you, and she was right.”  The second time he did this, we realized he was ostentatiously repaying courtesy with courtesy.  And we began to wonder if he would respond to the snub.

He did, but in the gentlest way possible.  Toward the end of his talk, in the course of some avuncular life advice, he turned to the subject of personal criticism.  “All of you,” he warned severely, “will be criticized in your life, whether fairly or unfairly.  And you will be tempted to respond in kind.  But when that happens, you need to follow the advice of my good friend Dana Carvey.”  A pregnant pause, and then: “Not gonna do it.  Wouldn’t be prudent.” And this he declaimed with an exaggerated version of his jerky woodenness, doing Saturday Night Live one better: giving us Bush’s imitation of Carvey’s imitation of Bush.

It brought down the house – that unscripted moment where an insult inadvertently provided the occasion for a spontaneous and triumphant moment of grace.

Michael J Lewis

Professor of Art