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Gehrke: What a note from George H.W. Bush to a Utah girl says about our politics today

(Photo courtesy of Jack Gallivan Jr.) Barbara and George H.W. Bush. Former President George H.W. Bush wrote a note to the Tooth Fairy for 7-year-old Katie Gallivan, a Utahn who lost her tooth in Bush's pool in 1989.

Katie Gallivan was splashing in the pool with her brother when the two finagled a way to finally get her loose tooth to fall out.

They tied a string around it and jerked it loose and just like that, the tooth sank to the bottom, lost forever.

The 7-year-old was distressed. Now how would the Tooth Fairy figure it out?

Fortunately for Katie, the pool they were at belonged to George H.W. Bush, and as they were leaving the Kennebunkport home, Bush, then in his first year as president, asked the little girl if she had had a good time.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

It was fine, Katie said, before briefing the president on the tale of woe surrounding her lost tooth.

Now Bush was distressed, and he had an aide fetch a notecard and pen because, as leader of the free world, the president has a little pull with the Tooth Fairy. It’s in the Constitution. Somewhere near the middle. Trust me, I’m a Constitutional scholar.

He dated it Sept. 2, ’89, put a little “X” in the top left corner near the logo that said Walkers’ Point and then, dispensing with ceremony, cut to the chase. “To the Tooth Fairy,” he wrote. “Katie’s tooth came out where the ‘X’ is. It really did — I promise.”

(Photo courtesy of Jack Gallivan Jr.) Former President George H.W. Bush wrote a note to the Tooth Fairy for 7-year-old Katie Gallivan, a Utahn who lost her tooth in Bush's pool in 1989.

He signed it “George Bush,” just as his wife, Barbara Bush, strolled up. George handed Barbara the note, and she signed it as the second witness.

Now it was ironclad. And Katie was relieved. That night, the Tooth Fairy left her a dollar under her pillow.

It was an encounter that Katie’s father, Jack Gallivan Jr. (son of the former Salt Lake Tribune publisher), looked back on fondly this week after the passing of the former president.

“With all of the stories that have been told over the last week, it was just so typical,” Gallivan told me Friday. “His kindness and his compassion, his sort of desire to have everybody happy.”

Now I don’t want to get too carried away in praising 41. He wasn’t an angel or a saint. He wasn’t even regarded by most as a particularly good president.

But the eulogies and remembrances over the past week always kept coming back to the same trait, a basic humility and kindness, a love for his children and grandchildren, and his respect for the office.

“I think we were all just sort of smacked in the face by how far we’ve fallen as we watched his funeral,” Gallivan said. “Where are those people that populated Washington? The people who have gone through the United States Senate? There were some giants in there. Where are they today?”

Indeed, it is a far cry from where we find ourselves today, where decency takes a backseat to winning at all costs, and corrosive, nasty attacks are the norm.

Last week, there was a piece that ran in this news outlet about another note that Bush wrote, not to a 7-year-old, but a note he wrote a little over three years later for incoming President Bill Clinton.

“When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too,” Bush wrote. “Your success now is our country's success. I am rooting hard for you.”

The two former adversaries would later become close friends. Clinton reflected on what that note said about Bush and the state of the country, as well.

“Given what politics looks like in America and around the world today, it’s easy to sigh and say George H.W. Bush belonged to an era that is gone and never coming back,” Clinton wrote. “I know what he would say: ‘Nonsense. It’s your duty to get that America back.’”

We can do it, I hope, if we try harder to disagree without disparaging, by standing for what we think is right without tearing down others’ beliefs, and if we take a little time to comfort and help those who might need it — including a 7-year-old girl with a missing tooth.

(Photo courtesy of Jack Gallivan Jr.) Former President George H.W. Bush wrote a note to the Tooth Fairy for 7-year-old Katie Gallivan, a Utahn who lost her tooth in Bush's pool in 1989.

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