When President George H.W. Bush passed away earlier this month, we were treated to many stories and memories about his long life. One tribute that stood out for us was the eulogy delivered at the State funeral in Washington D.C. by Bush’s close friend, former Senator Alan Simpson.
Simpson, a three-term senator from Wyoming whose time in office coincided with Bush’s presidency, told personal stories of his relationship with the president, and focused on Bush’s qualities as he described him as “the most decent and honorable man I ever met.” He simply shared examples from his lifetime of experiences with Bush that supported his point.
We appreciated Simpson’s opening, a quick line to elicit a chuckle and set the crowd at ease: “Relax, George told me I only have ten minutes.”
Simpson then went on to describe his unique connection to President Bush. Both of their fathers were U.S. Senators, and when Simpson’s father first took office, he moved into the office that was being vacated by Senator Prescott Bush, George’s father. Then, when George and Barbara moved to Washington when he first became a congressman, they purchased Simpson’s parents’ home on a handshake deal.
Yet when Bush ran in 1980 to be the Republican candidate for president, Simpson supported Reagan as a candidate, explaining that when Reagan asked for his support, Simpson didn’t yet know that Bush would be running. Bush took Simpson’s news in stride and said it wouldn’t affect their friendship.
That’s when we heard Simpson use a phrase that he would repeat throughout his eulogy: “Sound familiar?” From that point in his speech, each time he would give an example of Bush’s outstanding character, he would add the phrase: “Sound familiar?” The repetition of a line to convey a key point is a great speaker’s technique.
Simpson told stories of socializing with his wife, Ann, and the Bushes. When he told of their attending the theater to see a show, he literally sang the words from Evita: “Don’t cry for me, Argentina,” a pretty big risk for a non-singer but an effective use of vocal variety.
The best story Simpson told was a personal and self-deprecating one of a time when he had become enmeshed in a scandal, and he quickly went “from Washington’s A to D social list.” The Bushes invited the Simpsons to Camp David, and made sure that the media saw them together. “George, at the top of his game, reached out to me while I’m tangled in controversy,” adding that George remarked: “This is about friendship and loyalty.”
Then came Simpson’s best line: “Those who travel the high road of humility in Washington D.C. are not bothered by heavy traffic.” It was a wonderful tribute to his friend and president, and a great example of how effective presenters can honor friends and colleagues.