Sometimes it is small things that define a person.
In 1985, I was in law school, unsure of myself and my future. It was a painful time; my mother had developed lung cancer at the young age of 58. Then-Vice President George H.W. Bush was coming to Minneapolis for a fundraiser in anticipation of his presidential run, and my father had asked me to go in his place to greet the vice president, his classmate and friend. Dad was taking mom back to her native and beloved California. No one wanted to say it, but that was where she had decided to die.
I was hurting. When I arrived at the event in a large ballroom, there were hundreds of people, politicians and media. I didn’t know a soul and it all felt alien and unreal. This was not what was important. I wanted to honor my Dad’s wish to say hello, but I was uncomfortable. There was no way I was going to push through this crowd when Bush arrived — so I headed for the exit.
Suddenly, large double doors to my immediate right opened. I turned and there was a smiling and energetic Vice President Bush. I was right in front of him, the first person he saw. I stuck my hand out and said, “Mr. Vice-President, my name is Ben Whitney.”
He stopped in his tracks, his face fell in sadness and he gently asked: “How is your mother?” I was speechless for a moment, wondering how he could know to ask about mom when I hadn’t even told him my dad’s name. I finally stammered out that her condition was bad, and my parents were in California.
The crowd began to rush over to where we stood face to face. Bush asked, “How is your dad doing through all this?”
As I told him, the large crowd pressed around us, closer and closer. Out of the corner of my eye I could see politicians, donors and media angling for their moment with the vice president. Cameras flashed. Bush’s staff was trying to guide him away to greet others. But Bush stood with me looking into my eyes with unwavering attention, completely ignoring the chaos around us.
He then asked, “Ben, this must be really hard, how are you feeling?” I told him how close I was to my mother; how hard it was. He just listened. We talked for a bit more. Then, after glancing out over the crowd, he smiled and said, “I am going to have to go now, but please send my love to your parents and know I will be praying for them and for you.”
He then headed off to his political duties.
Three days later, Dad got one of Bush’s famous handwritten notes saying we had met and expressing his love and care for our family.
During the Gulf War, some of President Bush’s harshest critics accused him of sending soldiers off to war without caring for the human cost. It made me angry; I knew different. As I grew older and worked in politics and as a public figure, I never forgot the example he set for me that day — to be truly present with another person regardless of the circumstances, to be genuine with your feelings and to hold family close.
President Bush is one of my heroes, not just because of his great accomplishments, but more because he was a loving human being who had time for a hurting young man.
Ben Whitney served as U.S. ambassador to Norway, 2005-09.