Former president George H.W. Bush hosted an unusual visitor on the last day of his life, November 30, 2018.

A double amputee, Irish tenor Ronan Tynan is perhaps best known in the United States for his stirring rendition of “God Bless America” at New York’s Yankee Stadium, a tradition that began following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

But as the 41st president lay dying, surrounded by family and friends, Ronan serenaded the elder Bush with an emotional performance of the beloved Christmas favorite, “Silent Night.”

“All is calm, all is bright … sleep in Heavenly peace,” sang Tynan.

President Bush, who would die a few hours later, mouthed the words.

This and other moving anecdotes, stories and tributes are included in a new book by New York Times bestselling author Jean Becker, who served as the former president’s chief of staff for nearly a quarter-century in his post-presidential years.

Character Matters: And Other Life Lessons from George H. W. Bush is a lovely project featuring tributes from Becker and a wide array of family, friends, colleagues, and even political rivals.

Many of us are drawn immediately to the title, the idea that integrity, decency and honestly are all too often missing in America. We know character does matter – a whole lot, in fact.

Andy Card, who served President Bush as deputy White House chief of staff, tells a story of Bush meeting a mother and father whose son was killed in Panama. “You murdered my son,” Sandra Rouse told the president.

“Your son was a hero,” President Bush responded. “I could not do my job if not for people like your son. I want to hear all about him.” He then put his arm around her. They cried.

Included in the book are tributes from grandchildren. Granddaughter Noelle Bush writes, “Gampy always taught me to be humble; to be a hard worker; to go to church; and to pray every night.”

Gigi Koch, another granddaughter, recalls riding in Bush’s boat in the Maine rain. “He turned ordinary moments into the most fun,” she said.


President Bush wasn’t known to give a lot of unsolicited advice, but chapter six is devoted to some of the best counsel he gave over the years:

Don’t waste time. Start right away. Start something. Start a business. Start a family. Start getting involved in our community.

Start dreaming – and never stop. When you dream, dream big. Don’t be daunted or limited. Be bold. To dream big dreams, you can’t be afraid of failure. You can’t be afraid to extend yourself, to take qualified risks, to do something new.

 It takes values – simple, basic values such as always do your best.

If you accept responsibility, honor it.

If you are a leader, lead by example.

A Phone Call

Included in the book is a telling note that President Bush wrote Jean Becker on Easter Sunday in 1995. Stopping into his Houston office to do some paperwork,Bush answered the phone. “A Mr. Jesse Kirk, unemployed welder, called in,” wrote the president to Jean. “He then told me his problem. A good welder, he cannot find work because of his dyslexia and bad reading over all … He hates welfare. He doesn’t want a handout.”

President Bush concluded by asking, “Can we help Jesse?”

Neil Bush, one of the president’s sons, writes:

What lessons did we learn from the example that my father set? From his life we learned to show gratitude, sing the praises of others, count your blessings, put yourself in the other guy’s shoes, spread goodwill and joy through authentic interactions, be kind and gracious, live a life of dignity, honor, and patriotism, and leave the world a better place.

The Reverend Dr. Russell Levenson, who was Bush’s longtime pastor, noted that President Bush’s last words were “I love you.”

“He was a living point of light, and he showed us what it meant to lead, to live, and to love with a servant’s heart,” wrote Dr. Levenson. “By God’s grace, may we find our way there again … and again … and again.”



Image credit: Paul Batura