Reflecting on the life and legacy of the late President George HW Bush, there are valuable lessons to be learned from his understated communication style. A man of high integrity and quiet resolve, Bush famously advocated during his presidency for a “kinder, gentler nation.” While some perceived his kindness as weakness, his actions revealed a daring, courageous person who led by example. Here are five PR lessons from President George HW Bush.
Service over self. After the bombing at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Bush tried to enlist in the Navy but had to wait until his 18th birthday. He postponed college to serve as likely the Navy’s youngest fighter pilot, nearly losing his life after being shot down while on a bombing run off the island of Chi Chi Jima. A distinguished World War II veteran earning the highest honors, he devoted his entire life to service. During his presidency, he encouraged each and every American to be “Points of Light” by volunteering to help others.
It’s not about you! “Don’t use the word ‘I’ in my speeches,” President Bush told his then speechwriter Curt Smith. True to his upbringing and his mother’s admonition not to brag, Bush favored speaking plainly using simple words that everyone could understand. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bush famously declined to visit Germany to celebrate. Though he helped end the Cold War and achieve German reunification, he refused to take a victory lap.
The art of the handwritten letter. President Bush knew the power of the pen, sending hundreds of handwritten letters to people over the years. Now treasured keepsakes, he would often send a note of gratitude or congratulations, even a note of encouragement to his successor, Bill Clinton. In the letter, Bush said, “…. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck, George.”
Make friends with your adversaries. Speaking of Clinton, Bush didn’t stop with that letter. The pair developed a close friendship, with Bush often referring to Clinton as his “brother from another mother.” Together, they traveled the world to raise funds to aid victims of natural disasters. “In George Bush’s America, there are no political enemies, merely adversaries who may disagree with you on one day and yet be with you on the next roll call,” the late President Gerald Ford once said.
Keep your sense of humor. President Bush appreciated, and often told, a good joke, though his son, George W. Bush said during his father’s eulogy that he could never remember the punchline. Bush appeared on Saturday Night Live with his impersonator Dana Carvey and Bush invited Carvey to the White House to perform for the staff. The two developed an unlikely friendship. “What I remember about those years is how hard we laughed,” Carvey said. Bush also had a penchant for wearing bold, colorful socks, his way of making the best of his limited mobility after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Bush gave one of his most emotional speeches on December 7, 1991, the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Curt Smith, who wrote the speech, said Bush kept his composure until the last line: “God bless America,” he said, to which he added in tears “…the most wondrous land on earth.”