HOUSTON—He’s 88 years old and he gets around in a wheelchair, but George H.W. Bush, a guy who sits behind the on-deck circle at Minute Maid Park with his wife, still loves good barbecue, Astros baseball and an occasional dirty joke.
George H.W. Bush, the only Houstonian elected president of the United States, celebrates his birthday Tuesday at his summer home in Maine. Once an energetic college athlete who pitched for Yale’s baseball team, he has finally succumbed to warnings that he might fall and break a hip. So he spends much of his days rolling around in wheelchairs.
But there is a special joy to living so long as an ex-president. To the delight of his friends, he has survived long enough to enjoy a renewed appreciation of his presidency and a revival of his popularity, a phenomenon a presidential biographer calls “Poppy chic.”
“He’s doing remarkably well, for 88 years of age and to have Parkinson’s disease as he does in his lower extremities,” said James Baker, his longtime confidante and former secretary of state. “He has difficulty getting around now. He gets around on a scooter. But he’s still full of vim and vigor. His sense of humor is every bit as good as it always was.”
The former president’s apparent frailty is misleading, say his friends and family, who affectionately assure he’s in good health.
“It’s good, mentally,” says Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who’s also one of the president’s sons. “He’s slower. He can’t walk. He’s held up by a stroller. So that’s hard for a guy that’s been so vital and vigorous in life, you know. But he’s a joy to be with.”
The rest of the world may remember him as the one-term president who succeeded President Ronald Reagan, won the first Persian Gulf War and led the free world as the Berlin Wall fell. But after he left the White House and returned to Texas, his reputation only grew among his fellow Houstonians. Everyone, it seemed, knew somebody who’d encountered the former president and walked away delightfully surprised with his gentlemanly graciousness and easygoing personality.
“He’s extremely approachable,” said LLinda McReynolds, who lived next door to the Bushes in the Tanglewood subdivision. “President Bush is in top form, mentally. And when you visit with him, you know that.”
When Otto’s, his favorite barbecue joint, closed in 2010, Bush surprised unsuspecting customers by showing up for one last meal. A woman standing in line in front of him offered to buy his lunch, but she was delighted when he returned the favor.
“Well, that’s so nice of you,” the president told her. “How about me buying you lunch?”
His last public appearance happened last week, when he returned to the White House for the unveiling of his son’s presidential portrait. And for the first time in recorded history, one president nearly wept over the presence of another president who happened to be his father.
“I am honored to be hanging near a man who gave me the greatest gift possible: Unconditional love,” said former president George W. Bush. “And that would be number 41.”
Americans voted Bush 41 out of office after only one term. And yet, with his 88th birthday, there’s a renewed appreciation for what he was able to accomplish during those four years. A new HBO documentary premiering this week is calling new attention to his presidency. The New York Times just last weekend quoted presidential biographer Jon Meacham calling the phenomenon “Poppy chic.”
“I think what you’re seeing is really just the natural consequence of the fact that here’s a president who accomplished a lot of things and at the time it was not appreciated,” Baker said. “But it is very much appreciated today. And I think what’s wonderful is that he has lived to see that and to hear it.”