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 Mr. 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.
Mr. 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.
Today the man who relentlessly cultivated that image of Mr. Bush, his 1992 rival Bill Clinton, regards him pre-eminently as a man of integrity and achievement. Indeed, Mr. Clinton sometimes speaks fondly of Mr. Bush as the father he never had, and members of the Bush family joke that Mr. Clinton is the 41st president's favorite son.
Mr. Bush left office 20 years ago, and his appearance in the East Room last week in mismatched red-and-white-striped socks -- his real son, Neil Bush, said the family patriarch now is referred to as "GQ Man" by his wife and children -- was a poignant symbol of the passing of time, and of what time's passing can do to a presidency.
For Ulysses S. Grant, the passing of time (as well as a splendid biography released this year by H.W. Brands, "The Man Who Saved the Union") has transformed the 18th president from a bumbling, corrupt drunkard placeholder into a man of intelligence, determination, shrewdness and tolerance, particularly toward Indians, and, in Mr. Brand's estimation, "indisputably above politics."
For John Adams and for Harry Truman, the passing of time (and landmark biographies by David McCullough) transformed both single-election presidents into men of courage and idealism, almost romance. Mr. McCullough's book on Truman rode (and extended) a crest in the 33rd president's image, and his Adams volume gave the second president's historical reputation an extreme makeover. It is not too much to say, figuratively of course, that Mr. McCullough retrieved Adams from the dead.
For James A. Garfield, the passing of time (and a riveting book by Candice Millard, "Destiny of the Republic," released last year) transformed the 20th president from an obscure figure remembered mostly for being assassinated into a figure of grandness and destiny, a formidable symbol of American opportunity and mobility. Ms. Millard's book remains a briskly selling paperback even in airports, assuring that Garfield will not soon retreat back into popular eclipse.
For Dwight D. Eisenhower, the passage of time (and an important 1982 scholarly book by Fred I. Greenstein whose title, "The Hidden-Hand Presidency," has become a familiar term) transformed the former general from an inarticulate duffer and inveterate golfer into a shrewd if not cunning master of power, supplanting entirely the notion that the 34th president used the White House as a cozy retreat after his principal achievement, commanding Allied forces in Europe during World War II. This new view of Eisenhower was reinforced by last year's masterly 976-page "Eisenhower in War and Peace" by Jean Edward Smith. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently distributed to more than two dozen Pentagon officials a study of Eisenhower's handling of the 1956 Suez crisis.
For Lyndon B. Johnson, the passage of time (and volumes three and four -- though pointedly not volume two -- of Robert A. Caro's magisterial biography of LBJ) transformed the 36th president from a crude if not corrupt accidental chief executive whose ineptitude sent tens of thousands to their deaths in Vietnam into an ambitious if not quixotic spokesman for civil rights and an astral if not utopian advocate for social progress.
Mr. Bush has needed no revisionist tract to rehabilitate his image, though students of the presidency await Jon Meacham's forthcoming biography
In White House remarks at last week's event, Neil Bush said his father urged his sons (and all Americans) to live meaningful, ambitious lives and, in the younger Mr. Bush's words, to "find the dignity and goodness in every person." Historical revisionism and popular reassessment often does just that, but it requires the presence of inner dignity and innate goodness in a president to accomplish it.
The elder Mr. Bush was a master of power politics in foreign affairs (at the Central Intelligence Agency as well as in the White House) and hard-nosed politics in his election battles (especially in his 1988 battle with Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts). But the country regards him today as an ineffable symbol of dignity and goodness. Sometimes the presidency isn't so much a gift to an individual as it is to the nation.davidshribman
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412-263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.