This week, on May 1, the new George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum will be opening to the public. As per all presidential libraries, it has a simple purpose according to its mission statement: to serve "as a resource for the study of the life and career of George W. Bush, while also promoting a better understanding of the Presidency, American history, and important issues of public policy."
That's all well and good, and certainly wonderfully high-brow. It also served to remind me of a wonderfully "low-brow" personal story I have about President Bush and my mother.
My mother was an amazing woman and a talented artist. She loved dirty martinis and maple bars, and had a fantastic sense of humor: when she lost her hair completely from the cancer that ultimately killed her, she simply joked that she was just trying to look like the "avant garde chic" artist that she was.
But most important of all her personality and characteristics is the fact that I grew up with a mother whose absolute favorite bad word, favorite curse word, was "shit." Truly.
To the extent that in our guest half bath on the main floor -- the one that senators, congressmen, Supreme Court judges, and ambassadors used when attending dinner parties at our house -- we had a lovely poster of a huge locomotive hanging off a destroyed bridge into the abyss, with a one word description: "SHIT!"
But, in relevance to the opening of the G.W. Bush Library, her love of the word was such that she used it in conversation with the president at the White House. Truly.
My father, Michael Novak, had received an invitation for the two of them to attend a White House dinner in July 2006 to welcome the incoming Archbishop of Washington Donald W. Wuerl and honor the outgoing Archbishop of Washington Theodore Cardinal McCarrick. Even the Papal Nuncio at the time, Pietro Sambi, was to be there. It was a big deal. Unfortunately, my father was out of town.
This, of course, was not going to deter my mother. Of course, neither was her cancer, nor her weakness, nor her lack of hair. She called the White House, asked if she could attend without my father, but instead bring me as her date, as she was too ill to attend on her own. She's a very persuasive woman. The "non-transferable" invitation became transferable.
I, meanwhile, will admit that I grumbled and whined a bit about the evening. Really? I have to get all dressed up and go to some huge, boring White House dinner? Really? Because yeah, I was that spoiled and blasé about White House dinners after nearly 10 years in politics.
I should have known better.
We get to the dinner, and it turns out it is a very small, intimate affair, held in the private dining room of the first family, perhaps 40 people total. Um, wow. Yeah, I was impressed, seriously impressed.
This dinner happened to be right after -- and I do mean right after, the dinner was the very next day -- President Bush was caught using the word "shit" in what he thought was a private conversation with UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. It was at lunch at the G8 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. President Bush said to Prime Minister Blair: "The irony is, what they really need to do is to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it's over." But as so often happens in this wired world, his words were caught on tape.
It caused quite the hullabaloo. Quite the hullabaloo.
Not to my mother.
The dinner started with a "receiving line" whereby all the attendees could greet the Papal Nuncio, the outgoing archbishop, the incoming archbishop, the president, and first lady Laura Bush -- in that order. My mother, so seriously ill with the cancer, looked radiant but horribly thin, and had a bright, colorful scarf covering her bald head. She moved through the line before me, smiling, laughing, making small talk with each of the honored guests. Then she got to the president.
She took his hand, looked deeply into his eyes, and said: "You know, I thought it was an excellent choice of words. Sometimes the situation does not call for anything else." The president looked startled, and at a loss for words or any response at all. So she pressed on: "Shit. That situation absolutely called for the word shit."
The president just stared at her. The two archbishops and the Papal Nuncio looked horrified, dumbfounded. My mother just smiled serenely. She started to turn her attention to the first lady, grasping her hand, as the president put his out to greet me, still staring at my mother, now bemusedly. After a moment's pause, the president laughed, and said, "Well, my mother certainly did not approve." To which I promptly replied, "Well, my mother certainly did!"
And... Apparently, this whole exchange so impacted the president and first lady that upon the conclusion of the dinner, the first lady immediately sought us out, spent several minutes talking with my mother offering her encouragement and prayers, and then insisted that we take the first family's private elevator down to the exit, with her as company.
Um, wow. Yeah, I was impressed, seriously impressed. Apparently, curse words sometimes bring about positive outcomes. (At least with my mother's karma they do.)
So, on the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, I salute the president and the first lady -- this shit's for you!
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