My friend Sheri Arnold, then chief newsroom clerk at the Antelope Valley Press, was distributing the mail one morning in September 1998 when she came upon an envelope that caught her eye.
“Bill,” she said to me, “you got a letter from George Bush!”
“Here. George Bush. Kennebunkport, Maine.”
Letters from readers in Lancaster, Palmdale and surrounding environs — email had not yet become the predominant mode of communication — were common. But a letter from the 41st president of the United States?
That would be the last thing a suburban columnist would expect to land on his desk.
President George H.W. Bush, who died Friday, wrote thousands of letters and cards during his 94 years. He learned from an early age proper manners, courtesy and consideration for others, and his prolific writing of thoughtful notes exemplified the graciousness he displayed all his life.
The tributes pouring in this weekend all mention Bush’s kindness, gentleness and dignity.
His 1999 memoir, “All the Best,” tells the story of his life through his letters.
One letter “went viral” this weekend — the Jan. 20, 1993, handwritten, heartfelt message to Bill Clinton that the outgoing president left in the Oval Office for his successor.
Remember, Bill Clinton beat President Bush in a bitter, often nasty, campaign. Nonetheless, Bush’s letter showed not the slightest hint of animosity, but rather only the highest cordiality and well wishes.
The letter exuded class. It modeled how presidents ought to comport themselves.
After describing the sense of awe that one gets walking into the Oval Office as president of the United States, Bush went on to tell Clinton in this “Dear Bill” letter:
“I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some presidents have described. There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course. You will be our president when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.”
Bush concluded by telling Clinton he would root hard for his success.
Bill Clinton, however, was not the only one to receive a “Dear Bill” letter back in the ’90s, which brings us back to that letter from Maine that Sheri Arnold handed to me 20 years ago.
Bush wrote in response to my Sept. 6, 1998, column. The column, written during Bill Clinton’s “apology tour” for his behavior in the Lewinsky matter that led to his impeachment, was an open letter to President Bush.
Mine was a letter of apology for, after voting for him in 1988, abandoning him in 1992 and voting for Bill Clinton. My open letter expounded on the Bush grace and dignity everyone is talking about this weekend.
Unbeknownst to me, Valley Press reader Florence Strong clipped the column and sent it to Bush, who immediately responded.
Florence Strong from out your way sent me your September 6th “letter.”
Now I am sitting in front of my little computer trying to figure out how I can adequately say “thanks.” But there is no way. I am not that eloquent.
But believe me, sir, I was deeply touched by your kind words and generous assessment of what I tried to do as president,
I have stayed out of the Lewinsky fray, eschewing press conferences, electing to be quiet and let the system work.
I think it is Ok to tell you, however that I am heartsick.
Politics in Washington, elsewhere too, is not much fun these days. Having said that, I am very proud that two of our sons, honest and honorable men, are in the arena trying hard.
Thanks for a letter I’ll not soon forget.
His gracious letter, framed with the original column, remains in my home.
William P. Warford’s column appears every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.