So there he was, wheelchair-bound but with the old sense of style, short of breath but with the old intuitive grace: George H.W. Bush, 89 years old, back in the White House, there to mark the 5,000th Points of Light Award and to remind us that there are second acts in American lives — and that oftentimes they are extraordinary.
Many American presidents have had remarkable second lives. John Quincy Adams, like Bush, a member of an indispensable American political dynasty, followed his White House years with a star turn in the House and distinguished himself as a man of courage and integrity by winning freedom for Africans who mutinied on the slave ship Amistad and refusing payment for arguing their case before the Supreme Court.
Later, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, like Adams, single-term presidents, won the world’s applause as advocates for human rights, ranging from freedom from hunger in European war zones to freedom from fear at the polling place.
It may be that leaving the White House after a single term liberates a man to do his best work — Rutherford B. Hayes was a tireless advocate for educational opportunity and social mobility, for example — though Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan prove that an inspired and inspiring second act is not the fate of all single-term presidents.
Still, nothing changes presidents’ profiles quite so much as leaving the White House, sometimes to have those profiles polished and perhaps sanitized in their post-presidential years. That’s not inevitable, however. Woodrow Wilson has been diminished by the passing of time; grand boulevards in European capitals were named for him after World War I, but today his romantic idealism is often deprecated and his presidency is often disparaged.
Bush is our latest living example of how time can burnish a president’s profile. He left office as a caricature of an Andover-and-Ivy plutocrat, lacking feeling for the victims of an economic downturn, remote from the daily lives of the people he sought to lead, offering timeworn but irrelevant nostrums for the nation’s problems.