(Author Russ Levenson was interviewed on the Living Church Podcast about his book and his experience as pastor to a president. Listen)
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Review by W.L. Prehn
Without a community to bestow it, there can be no authentic dignity. Dignity is given to someone by those with whom the person loves, works, worships, cries, and laughs. A community will not bestow dignity on one of its members unless that person manifests integrity and honor, which must be accompanied by justice, prudence, temperance, and courage. It has been ever so, as Plutarch’s Lives demonstrates. If dignity is bestowed by others, this does not mean that the virtues incorporating dignity cannot be taught, learned, and practiced to the end that they become habitual. The lives of George H.W. and Barbara Bush contradict the notion that good parenting, good education, and good breeding are useless to the rest of the world. Their noteworthy dignity in 30 years of public service included integrity, honor, and a simple Christian faith that bore much good fruit.
Russell Levenson, rector of St. Martin’s Church in Houston, is straightforward about the ultimate purpose of Witness. It is to inspire the reader “to be more like Barbara and George.” Chapter after chapter, and page after page, Levenson tells us why the Bushes were worth knowing and why we should want to be like them. Likewise, by zeroing in on the life and work of two eminent parishioners, Levenson makes us privy to the various ingredients that make a parish church life-giving and extraordinary. This disclosure of the secrets of “the St. Martin’s Way” is entirely applicable to we who live many miles from Houston.
Witness to Dignity is a moral tale. It is a powerful story for these troubled times when power is taken for virtue and demagoguery mistaken for statesmanship. Yet the book is free of ideology and partisan politics. If the Bushes were in retirement above all that, so is Levenson. His noteworthy tact allows him to exclude politics so that we can see George and Barbara as fellow Christians. Levenson wants to “remind folks that having godly, dignified leaders of character is not only possible but necessary; that what happens in private life matters in public life, and vice versa.”
Hence Levenson’s book gives us the opportunity to see “the tall, stately, exuberant Bush” as more than an American president. The book argues that George Bush’s first purpose in life was to be one of the disciples and subjects of King Jesus. Discipleship began early in his life and never ended. The president and his first lady saw the need to say their prayers, be in church as often as possible, and do what good churchmen do to support their parish and the advance of the gospel.
What we saw is what we got. At his inauguration on the capitol steps in early 1989, Bush’s first act as president was to ask Americans to pray with him. He believed that the God who delivered him from probable death at sea in 1944 would surely hear the prayers of a faithful nation asking for God’s grace and wisdom at the beginning of a new administration. About the duties and responsibilities of a Christian, Barbara was as much a leader as her husband, and she was certainly as decisive. She had at once a predisposition for charity and a predilection for knowing who really needs it. She had a habit of telling those around her that they all would say a prayer, or would give to a certain approved cause, or would of course participate in an event because it was the right thing for Christian people to do. Most of us need such leadership most of the time. Barbara’s personality was imposing to persons who were not inclined to see the good and then do it. She was not a theologian or an intellectual. She was a woman of action, just as her husband was a man of action. Together they did much good in this world.
Levenson notes that George and Barbara did not wear their faith on the sleeve. In this respect, they were typical Episcopalians. But they were not typical Episcopalians in other ways. For instance, they would spontaneously ask for or lead prayers, even in very public places. In restaurants, they wanted all to hold hands around the table while one or the other thanked God for the food and other blessings. Faith informed the president and first lady in everything they did or determined to do, whether hastening the fall of the Iron Curtain, serving as commander in chief, intelligently conversing with ideological opponents, or enjoying friends and family at their coast house in Maine. Whether in the White House or as senior citizens in suburban Texas, George and Barbara trusted in God and possessed an active faith. People all over America and the world noticed.
Even as they were leading the free world between 1980 and 1993, George and Barbara were the sort of parishioners for which every pastor hopes. They gave generously of their time, talent, and treasure to parish projects, large and small, to charities and good works, and to various and sundry ministries in Houston and abroad. Whenever the clergy needed George or Barbara to help with a matter — for example, to nudge someone in the parish to participate in a parish-wide initiative — the first couple agreed with alacrity to do what they could to get a ball rolling. It follows that the biographer argues that George and Barbara’s membership at St. Martin’s was crucial to the quality of public service they gave to the nation for almost 30 years. “There was a kind of contagious optimism that preceded them and followed them.”
Barbara was sophisticated about works of charity. Her counsel and leadership helped St. Martin’s realize its heartfelt dream to be a major center of faith-based philanthropy. For such purposes, the parish aims to use 25 percent of its revenue per annum; $40 million have been raised for such purposes since 2007. On one level, the 352 pages of the book form an exposition of St. Matthew’s Gospel, especially the 25th chapter, where we find the powerful words, “If you do this to the least of these my brethren, you do it unto me,” and the eighth verse of the 10th chapter — “Freely you have received; do thou freely give.”
This is a wonderfully good book and would make an excellent gift. The prose rolls along effortlessly. The biographer is a consummate storyteller who knows how to properly use humor, deep ideas, sentimental episodes, true accounts of eminent Americans, and well-described examples of faith in action to drive home his thesis that God is real and Christ’s faithfulness is indeed great. One important feature of this biography is the way it points up the good work and faithful service of the many Bush staffers who served from the White House and Washington years to the last years of retirement. They too are rendered by Levenson as admirable and dutiful servant leaders.
In Witness to Dignity, Levenson frequently describes what he calls “the demonstrable presence of God.” The author’s faith, love, learning, and knowledge of the Lord come through again and again in these pages. When Barbara’s health went into precipitous decline in the spring of 2018, Levenson was by her and the president’s side as they spoke of “going home” and what the translation from mortal to eternal life entails. The first lady died on April 17 of that year. The president departed this life only seven months later. Levenson wants to encourage the reader to know that the precious and sad moments surrounding death are yet often the scene of an encounter with God.
Governor Jeb Bush writes in the foreword of Witness to Dignity that his parents were people of “high purpose” and “decency, integrity, kindness, and charity for all.” Both of his parents “showed us dignity.” Russ Levenson witnessed this remarkable dignity close-up. He wrote the book to be an inspiration to others. Life is short. We have the liberty to decide in any moment whether we shall live for others or ourselves. Levenson’s story of George and Barbara Bush encourages us to lift up our hearts, to believe in the Lord, and to seek best we can to do God’s will. As President Bush said to one of his grandsons, “God is good, but his love has a cost: We must be good to one another.”
The Rev. Dr. W.L. (Chip) Prehn is an Episcopal priest, writer, and partner of Dudley & Prehn Consultants, which specializes in helping families find the right boarding school fit.