I watched the memorials and funeral for the late President George H. W. Bush and was moved by the speeches about this leader. Speaker after speaker spoke of their relationships with the President. I was also fortune to have some friends who knew and worked with President Bush and they too shared memories of their moments with him. I then realized my parents also “knew” President Bush. It began with a letter of apology.
My family members were wrongly imprisoned during World War II because they looked like the enemy. In 1942, the U.S. government rounded up over 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry, uprooted them from their homes and locked them behind barbed wire prisons in desolate areas of America. My folks were torn from their homes outside of Fresno and forced to live for years in a relocation camp in the desert south of Phoenix. They rarely spoke of this treatment and carried a sense of guilt and shame. Then in the 1980s and 1990s, a redress movement was launched to address the wrongs committed against American citizens.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the legislation that granted reparations to Japanese Americans. Later, in 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed letters of apology which were sent to my folks.
I can remember opening the letter with my father. He silently read it and set it down. He said nothing. He closed his eyes for a moment, followed by a very subtle nodding of his head. He acknowledged the decades of pain and struggle. With a nod, he felt a closure on a dark chapter in our family history: He accepted the apology from the president.
At that moment, and when I watched and listened to the tributes to the late President George H.W. Bush, I thought about an honest relationship so rare in politics today. Of course my parents never met the president. They never talked with him nor even came close enough to shake his hand. But the letter carried the weight of something personal: It had meaning.
Today our connections with many elected officials are anything but sincere. The public connection with a president is based on superficial tweets and stories. We are disconnected and distant, lost in a dance of words and images designed to create a crafted image and not a relationship.
The public discourse of politics is polarized and divided. The idea of my mom forging a sincere exchange with a politician today is foreign to her. I can’t imagine her receiving a letter of apology to right a wrong. Meaning seems absent in the politics of today, maneuvering and manipulation stands at the forefront and a culture of fear and threats dictate who has the power. My family’s quiet story of injustice would be lost in the sweeping noise of social media and the yelling and screaming.
Today, perception rules. Messaging matters. Politics functions in the shadows. A simple letter that meant much to my father would never have happened in the current toxic world of political wars. He would have died with an open wound of shame.
The redress legislation from President Reagan and later the letter from President Bush was a public act of courage. My father then knew he had done no wrong. He had assumed the role of the head of household at a young age as his immigrant parents struggled to comprehend why they were branded as evil. He was later drafted and served in the US Army during World War II. He worked hard to build a family farm in a country that had forsaken him.
President Bush’s letter began a public healing for him and a personal relationship with a president of the United States. And the politics of that moment were sincere and honest and specifically directed to a quiet, reserved farmer, an American by birth, who simply wanted to know he was welcomed in this country he called home.