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Brian McGrory

The dignified statesman

George H.W. Bush’s presidency, maybe even Washington as a whole, was guided by decency and dignity, writes Brian McGrory.

Bob Levey/Getty Images/File

George H.W. Bush’s presidency, maybe even Washington as a whole, was guided by decency and dignity, writes Brian McGrory.

KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine - Patten’s Berry Farm is the kind of place a Hollywood producer would want to invent if it didn’t already exist, with Mrs. Patten selling corn, apples, and pumpkins on the side of a country road in this impossibly pretty town.

I happened to be chatting about the Patriots with the nice woman at the cash register on a quiet Sunday morning when a gleaming black sedan pulled into the parking lot. The front doors opened and men emerged. The back passenger door opened. When I looked up again, George H.W. Bush, the former president, sat in a wheelchair between his car and mine.

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This is not unusual, seeing George Bush, the original George Bush, in this town. He was, until a couple of years ago, a fairly regular golfer at Cape Arundel, a fixture on his power boat, an occasional diner at Hurricane in Dock Square. He orders lobster rolls at the Clam Shack and roams the aisles of the Bradbury Bros. Market. There is little in this world as authentic as George Bush’s love of Kennebunkport, Maine.

As we returned to the car, the former president continued to sit, smiling at something I couldn’t see. And then I did - our golden retrievers, two of them, their heads poking through the back window pleading for his attention.

“Beautiful dogs,’’ he said. He asked their names - Baker and Walter - then smiled at the answer. I brought up Ranger, the lesser known of his two springer spaniels from his White House days, a dog he loved that died much too young. He said he has a couple of smaller dogs these days.

I didn’t tell him I wrote for a newspaper, not that he would have cared, or that I covered his successor, Bill Clinton, or that I once spent the better part of a day with his son when he was governor of Texas. It wasn’t worth clouding a moment this clear.

The president extended his arm to shake hands, with me and Pam, who had led me on this produce run. I told him he looked good, because he did, sharp and oddly boyish, even at 87 years old in the confines of a wheelchair.

“Spiritual,’’ he replied, whimsically. “I hope I look spiritual. I’m just coming from church.’’

When we were done, when the former president continued on his quiet errand, I should have felt invigorated by this uniquely American encounter. What I really felt, though, was a deep sense of loss.

Five minutes with George H.W. Bush, and the problems of the present are made more vivid by the virtues of the not-so-distant past. Say what you will, but the unimpeachable fact is that he knew how to govern. His compromise on a tax hike (which likely cost him his presidency), combined with the spending caps and cuts he put in place, paved the way for the roaring prosperity of the 1990s and the federal surpluses that accompanied it.

He reached across the aisle to pass the Clean Air Act of 1990 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, two landmark accomplishments that have a profound impact on everyday life. The war to oust Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait had a clear mission and a defined end.

This Washington doesn’t exist any more. There are no leaders risking their careers in the name of the common good. There are precious few officials seeking compromise rather than cheap political points. There are no bridges, just blockades, no reasonable debates, just frantic threats. The extremes, especially on the right, have overwhelmed the middle, and the result is an economy in a government-prolonged rut.

This wasn’t exactly a revelation on the side of a country road in Maine, but a moment of clarity. George H.W. Bush’s presidency, maybe even Washington as a whole, was guided by decency and dignity.

You don’t outgrow these virtues, you simply abandon them. And to spend even a few fleeting moments with what we had only makes it more regrettable about what we’ve become.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.
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