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The new George H. W. Bush
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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 there are second acts in American lives -- and 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.
 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 Bush, his 1992 rival Bill Clinton, regards him pre-eminently as a man of integrity and achievement. Clinton sometimes speaks fondly of Bush as the father he never had, and members of the Bush family joke that Clinton is the 41st president's favorite son.
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.
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 Bush's words, to "find the dignity and goodness in every person." Historical revisionism and popular reassessment often do just that, but it requires the presence of inner dignity and innate goodness in a president to accomplish it.
The elder Bush was a master of power politics in foreign affairs (at the Central Intelligence Agency as well as in the White House) and of 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.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (