“Yeah. I read all the time. I don’t have a favorite topic.”
“Fiction? Nonfiction? Sports?
“I don’t know much about sports.”
“I really don’t like mysteries.”
“Most 14-year-olds don’t like to read,” Bush said, stretching for a compliment.
Worried that the conversation was going nowhere, I reminded Tyler what Clinton had asked him to do eight days earlier.
“Oh, yeah,” he said to Bush. “Bill Clinton sends his best.”
Bush smiled warmly. “We’ve been friends,” he said. “We’ve shared experiences. We’re like brothers.”
I could feel my stomach tightening, worried that Bush would consider Tyler rude or obtuse. I nervously change the subject to sports, a passion Bush and I share. “Stop butting in,” I wrote in my notebook. Bush politely engaged with me but quickly turned back to Tyler.
“So, Tyler, at 14 this is probably an unfair question to ask, but do you have any idea what you’d like to be when you get older?
“Maybe a comedian.”
“Maybe a what?” Bush said, a bit surprised.
“Well,” Bush replied, “I’m a pretty objective audience. You might want to try a couple of your lines out on me.”
“Nah,” Tyler demurred. “I don’t have any material”
I tried to prod Tyler into sharing a bit of the stand-up act that won him second prize at a school talent show. I nudged him about the improv classes he was taking.
Bush let him off the hook. “Ah, interesting,” he said. “I’ve met a lot of people. You know how many people ever said, ‘I think I’d like to make people laugh?’ You’re the only guy. That’s awesome.”
Bush had connected. With an impish smile, he told Tyler about the time that rocker/humanitarian Bono was scheduled to visit the White House. The president’s aides, knowing that their boss was unimpressed by celebrities, worried that Bush would blow it. “[Chief of Staff] Josh Bolten comes in and said, ‘Now, you know who Bono is, don’t you?’ Just as he’s leaving the Oval Office, I said, ‘Yeah, he’s married to Cher.’ ” Bush raised an eyebrow. “Get it?” he asked Tyler. “Bone-oh. Bahn-oh.”
Afterward, I asked Tyler about the Bono joke. He said, “Sounds like something goofy you would say.” But for me, the exchange was an eye-opener. Tyler was terse, even rude, but Bush was solicitous. Rather than being thrown by Tyler’s idiosyncrasies, he rolled with them, exactly as he had in the Oval Office nine years earlier. He responded to every clipped answer with another probing question. Bush, a man who famously doesn’t suffer fools or breaches of propriety, gave my son the benefit of the doubt. I was beginning to think that people are more perceptive and less judgmental toward Tyler than his own father is. Bush certainly was.
LOVE THAT BOY
Tyler and I are sitting in the car outside a bookstore. The Barnes & Noble in Northern Virginia is where we go most weekends, sharing our love of books and time alone. He’s reading a draft of this article.
“It’s OK,” my little professor says, “but it’s a bit of a cliché.” He asks me to say he’s no longer afraid of bees or of the dark. He objects to a passage in which I tell him, “Courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s overcoming your fears.” It must be a misquotation, he says, because his father doesn’t talk so eloquently. And he’s not impressed with my original conclusion.
Fair enough, I say. “So help me find a better ending. What did you get out of the project, pal?”
“All I got out of it was time with you,” he says, laughing. “No offense.” I tell Tyler there’s got to be a better way to end our story than saying we spent time together. “This isn’t Twilight,” he says, referring to the film saga he wouldn’t be caught dead watching. “This is you and me. Just write that we like to spend time together. That’s a big deal for a kid like me.”
It would be a big deal for me—if I believed him. The fact is, he’d rather be alone, and I can accept that now, because the aversion to social contact is part of who Tyler is. But he is telling me what he knows I want to hear, and that’s progress for my empathy-challenged Aspie.
Thanks to the team Lori put together, Tyler is learning to connect and to belong. And thanks to the project she forced upon on us, I see that progress firsthand. Tyler will be a happy, thriving adult. I might even have helped. Being with him, accepting him, watching him overcome his fears, and seeing him through the forgiving eyes of others—this is my field of dreams. I don’t need to “have a catch” with Tyler to be a good father; I simply need to let him be. Rather than sweat over his Asperger’s, I now realize how much I’d miss if he wasn’t an Aspie—his humor, his bluntness, his unaffected obsessions with everything from video games to family. As the rest of society seems to be perfecting irony and affect, Tyler is constitutionally unable to bullshit. God, I love him. And now I know others will love him, too.
On the trips to Arkansas and Texas, I saw through both presidents a successful future for Tyler—in Clinton, big possibilities for a boy with a sharp mind and rough edges. In Bush, Tyler’s gift of humor as a means to find confidence in himself and connections with others. I learned that while Tyler was not my idealized son, he was the ideal one. In the Oval Office, years ago, I thought Bush had ordered me to “love that boy” in spite of his idiosyncrasies. Now, I realize, I love my son because of them.
This is what I tried to tell Tyler in the car outside the bookstore. “I get it, Dad,” he said dismissively. “Now can we go home? I want to play video games.” And so we go.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the location of President Bush's office. It is in a suburban Dallas bank building.
This article appeared in print as "First, Family."
This article appears in the Dec. 1, 2012, edition of National Journal.