The passing of our 41st president, George Herbert Walker Bush, is a solemn occasion, as we have not only lost a great American and a loyal, compassionate, kind, honorable and loving human being, but also a symbol of a bygone era marked by civility, ethics, grace, honor, manners and meticulous attention to detail, such as the handwritten letter.
One of the hallmarks of 41’s style was the art of the written letter, something the younger generations do not appreciate or experience with the gravitas it deserves because email, text message, voice recognition and emoji are quicker and more convenient. Indeed, I am nostalgic. But the loss of this art form is not just the loss of an art but a very human, personal act that touches another heart and makes a much bigger and impactful difference to relationships and to life. Further, the loss of writing a letter and handwriting in general is a much bigger loss: the loss of a part of our brain that can only be activated by the fingers touching a pen or pencil and taking it to paper. Certain thoughts can only be expressed when that simple act happens, and this, my friends, is science. According to a 2014 article published in the New York Times, “Handwriting increases neural activity in certain sections of the brain, sharpens the brain and helps us learn, and forces us to slow down and smell the ink.” Further, according to a study from Indiana University, the simple act of writing unleashes creativity not easily accessed in any other way. Cynics may require more proof than that, but that — and the more positive, longer-term effects I experience when I take the pen to paper rather than my finger to the keyboard — is enough for me.
Like President Bush, my grandfather, Cold War lawyer and diplomatic negotiator James B. Donovan, was a member of the “Greatest Generation” and a Navy commander who devoted much of his life and career to public service. As general counsel of the Office of Strategic Services, he was also a founding father of our the Central Intelligence Agency, where President Bush served as director. When I had my grandfather’s book “Strangers on a Bridge” republished in 2015, there were two notable people who immediately came to mind when asked who might be able to write a testimonial, as well as speak personally to my grandfather’s legacy. One of those two people was President George H.W. Bush; the other, not coincidentally, was someone from the opposite side of the political spectrum — Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg. When I called the Bush Library to confirm the correct address for correspondence, I was taken aback when I was immediately put in touch with his office and was given the address. Though I had connections to the Bush family, I chose to go the formal route rather than asking for a favor to facilitate more immediate attention to my letter. This type of shortcut is also why people text and email: because it’s easier, quicker and more convenient. Unfortunately, I was remiss in following up, because … well … life got in the way, and the deadline passed. So I am not sure if President Bush ever received my letter, but I know in my heart that he would have given my granddad his due, and that I am proud of myself for making the effort and not taking the more expedient route.
So, I have now written a second letter — this time handwritten — to President Bush and have sent it to the Bush Library as a way to pay my respects and to further memorialize his legacy. I encourage others to do the same, as well as to take the time to continue to hand-write letters — thank-you letters; letters of sympathy, friendship and congratulations; love letters; letters of any and all kinds — as well as to continue to take the pen to paper for any and all kinds of writing. Personal expression in this form matters. You may be surprised by the difference in what is expressed when taking that pen to paper every once in a while, rather than the fingers to the keyboard or thumb to the iPhone. Additionally, not only does it also provide the writer with the opportunity for proper reflection and thought, but it also gives the recipient the same opportunity — as well as the gift of truly personal, authentic and heartfelt expression.
My handwritten letter to President Bush is a love letter to a man whose dignity, kindness, compassion, integrity, faith, commitment, grace, humor, humility, humanity and love have touched my life, the lives of Americans and so many around the world. President George Herbert Walker Bush may no longer be here, but I know in my heart that he has already received my letter. Though I will never get a direct response from him, I know that my grandfather now has another friend and former comrade to keep him company up above, and that is all I need to know. I know I could never hope to emulate the life President Bush lived, but at least hand-writing this letter is a good start. May you rest in peace, Mr. Bush, as your life serves as a role model for all of us for generations to come.
Beth Amorosi lives in New York City and Lake Placid, is president of AMO Communications and is granddaughter of James B. Donovan, a Cold War lawyer, diplomatic negotiator, World War II veteran and author who was a seasonal resident of Lake Placid, is buried in St. Agnes Cemetery in Lake Placid and was played by Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg’s movie “Bridge of Spies.”