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“Regal and modest”

What “Na ga da” means to me

Jeffrey Denny

Toledo, Ohio, where I grew up, is the definition of modest, about as regal as the famous local Tony Packo’s Hungarian hot dog featuring a sausage called kolbász topped with a spicy meat gravy.

Leaving Toledo at 17 for the Navy, my service eventually landed me in Connecticut, on the shore, which is where ships tend to be. In New London, to be precise, on the Thames River, not pronounced temes like in old London but thames like it sounds in America.

It was in Connecticut where I first experienced the combination of regal and modest, which is how Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty described the recently late U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush.

“Regal and modest” captured why New England — the old Bush family homestead — is the home of my heart, even as a native Ohioan who has lived in Washington, DC, for more than 30 years.

I spent just the ’80s in Connecticut — the end of my Navy stint plus four years in college and a couple more in newspapers and then a magazine that sent me to Washington.

In DC, I was the press aide for a Connecticut congresswoman. I go back to Connecticut as often as possible to visit my brother from another mother and head down to our favorite old village shore points of Mystic, Stonington, Groton Long Point and Noank. Noank is the only place where I will eat lobster for reasons too complicated yet boring to explain here.

En route to CT, up I-95 when I finally work past the nightmare of the George Washington Bridge, the pleasure begins when I break away to the Merritt Parkway and pass under the old FDR New Deal Works Project Administration Art Deco bridges. The parkway was built when infrastructure could be timeless art and architecture and we didn’t let roads and bridges crumble due to lack of foresight and partisan gridlock.

This time of year, winding the woodsy Merritt doesn’t hurt that old holiday feeling. Especially if it happens to be snowing. I want to pull over and sob with pleasure. I don’t know why but it’s not bad. Not bad at all. So sometimes I do.

***

The proceedings for the late President George H. W. Bush in Washington, DC, were immediate for me.

Not just because the powerful services and lineup of speakers highlighted by his son were at the Washington National Cathedral just a few blocks for my home. Or that the city was shut down as a national day of mourning. Or that the procession to Andrews Air Force Base blocked traffic on my way to a client’s office downtown. Or that the cabbie who took me home had a slow day because the government was shut down. Or that people I know who knew, worked with and loved President Bush were truly sad, feeling America lost a true gentleman leader who truly was a gentle man.

While as a Democrat I voted for Mike Dukakis and then Bill Clinton in whose administration I served, I share my friends’ appreciation for “Poppy”.

And no — thanks for asking — the passing of our 41st president was not meaningful for me because of juxtaposing him with our 45th. As Dana Carvey said so well in affectionately parodic tribute to G.H.W.B., not gonna do it. Na ga da.

The main reason President Bush’s passing touched me dates back to a college break summer job as a security guard at the Mystic Seaport Museum.

It was there, on the nautical southeast shore of Connecticut, where I met beautiful young square-jawed Kennedy-esque people straight from a Ralph Lauren catalog louche-ly slouching in nice but threadbare oxford button-downs and baggy khaki chinos (before chinos were Dockers and dad pants).

They were classic preppies before the bestselling “Preppie Handbook”. Every day they wore the same original and blown-out Sperry Topsiders they regularly sailed in, their shoes held together with duct tape, sometimes red tape on the left side (port) and green on the right (starboard).

They drove ramshackle Volvo 122S station wagons or smoking Saab 96s with the two-stroke three-cylinder engine and three-speed shift on the steering column, a car that looked like a pregnant stink bug but uglier. And they liked it! as Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man would say.

It was in New England where I learned what “shabbily genteel” meant.

It meant that unlike in places like (sorry) Texas or the old South, you rarely mention, let alone show off, your heritage, schooling, family name or wealth.

Your old family from the Mayflower might have old money and even towns or states named for you. You might even come from a LOT of old money, with trust funds that have their own trust funds that earn more money every day than you could ever spend, so you spend too much time with estate lawyers and accountants, and on private school and nonprofit organization boards.

You might be an heir to the oldest companies in America, such as Brown Brothers Harriman, Dupont, Citigroup, or the Bank of New York Mellon founded by Alexander Hamilton. You might be related to one of the original Brooks Brothers and get free shapeless broadcloth shirts and rep ties for life. You might be an Ivy legacy with a legendary family name yet broke and driving an old chugging Volvo or Saab because your limb of the family tree branched away from the old wealth.

No matter. Name and money ultimately don’t matter, nor should matter, here in these United States. In our self-governing democratic republic, the most modest can and must reign. Everyone, patrician to plebeian, can and should rise and lead. And do.

RIP, G.H.W.B.

You and our 44th president, while completely different people, and from completely different backgrounds, were more alike than anyone could have imagined.

Both ‘41 and ‘44 reminded us that rich or poor, old money or new, president or worker bee, whatever our blood, whether Mayflower WASP or mongrel like most of us, all Americans can be regal yet modest.

By the way, the classic Sperry two-eyed boat shoe from 1935 is still the best everyday footwear invented since then. $75. Please do not wear socks if wearing them correctly means anything to you.

Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer

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