Great American Stories: Proud to Be an American
"You ask about Pursuit of Happiness at a good time in my life. I have pursued life itself over many years now and with varying degrees of happiness." Tweet
Yesterday, I mentioned a letter George H.W. Bush, the retired 41st U.S. president, sent me 20 years earlier to the day. It came in response to a magazine story about how American presidents used the famous phrase “the pursuit of happiness” that’s found in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence.
Three other living ex-presidents as well as the current president, “Bush 43,” had been interviewed or agreed to write me. But after the reporting was done, and before the essay was published, the nation was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. Based on what George H.W. Bush had written, I felt obliged to ask if he wanted to change anything.
In my time as a journalist, I’ve heard every president from Jerry Ford to Joe Biden employ the eloquence of Thomas Jefferson on behalf of national unity. The Declaration of Independence preamble, with its memorable phrase about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” being innate rights, is an irresistible touchstone for American political leaders.
The magazine assignment I referenced entailed getting these presidents to explain what that famous phrase meant to them. After writing it, I turned the project into my first book. In it, I examined what presidents, and a handful of other American leaders ranging from Frederick Douglass and Eleanor Roosevelt to Hubert Humphrey and John McCain, wanted Americans do to with Jefferson’s soaring language — and how they personally incorporated the idea of pursuing happiness into their own lives.
Ford and George W. Bush made similar points: For them, happiness was wrapped up in the concept of public service. Bill Clinton, noting that his middle name was Jefferson, asked me if he could write about his namesake. (Obviously, the answer was yes.)
Bush 41 at first declined to participate, then relented. His email to me, sent on Aug. 9, 2001, described happiness as a striving for success and fulfilment that, late in life, he had found.
“Dear Carl,” his letter began. “You ask about Pursuit of Happiness at a good time in my life. I have pursued life itself over many years now and with varying degrees of happiness. But now, at seventy-seven I find that I am perfectly content to let history be the judge of those things I got right and of my mistakes in life as well.”
Bush expressed pride in his children and grandchildren and joy in his relationship with his wife, Barbara. “Our happiness together,” he wrote, “is strong, unbendable and rock solid.” In summary, he explained that his lifelong quest had been attained.
“In competitive business I was very happy — though restless and somewhat driven,” he wrote. “In politics I had victories and defeats but for the most part I was happy. In big government jobs here and abroad I was fortunate to get to live my life’s creed, which says public service is a noble calling.”
“I have found happiness,” he told me. “I no longer pursue it, for it is mine.”
This would have been a nice way to end a magazine piece, but then the planes hit the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. Three thousand Americans were killed, and Bush’s eldest son was thrust into the role of wartime commander-in-chief.
In those circumstances, I reached out to Jean Becker, the former president’s chief of staff. I figured Bush might want to change what he’d written. She thought so, too. We were both in for a surprise.
Under a heading marked “POSTSCRIPT,” here is what George H.W. Bush sent me:
“I wrote this ‘pursuit of happiness’ essay before the tragic events of September 11th. When…asked [if] I wanted to revise it to reflect my post-September 11th thoughts, my first thought was that I probably should. But as I reread this, I realized that the ‘pursuit of happiness’ is truly one of our inalienable rights as Americans. It’s just as important now, as it was when I wrote this, that all of us participate in and celebrate one of our most treasured freedoms. It’s just one of many reasons why I am so proud to be an American.”
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.