Dead Presidents

Historical facts, thoughts, ramblings and collections on the Presidency and about the Presidents of the United States.

By Anthony Bergen
Recent Tweets @
Posts tagged "George H.W. Bush"
Just don’t tell anyone about your 18-year-old girlfriend.
George W. Bush, to his father, after George H.W. Bush mentioned that his 1996 parachute jump was made to demonstrate to other senior citizens how they could remain active.

When George H.W. Bush emerged from Ronald Reagan’s shadow in 1988 to seek the Presidency in his own right after nearly eight years as Reagan’s Vice President, many of his opponents and the media’s political pundits saw him as an out-of-touch, stuffy, patrician, WASP who, in the famous words of Texas Governor Ann Richards, “was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”  Probably the most frustrating incident of the 1988 campaign was when Newsweek ran a cover story called “Fighting the Wimp Factor” which questioned whether Bush was tough enough to be President.

All of these labels were patently unfair when directed towards Bush, who would eventually defeat Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in November 1988 and become the 41st President.  After all, Bush enlisted in the U.S. Navy on the very day that he turned 18 years old during World War II, was the youngest pilot in the entire Navy upon earning his wings, and flew 58 combat missions in the treacherous Pacific.  Out of the fourteen pilots in Bush’s squadron, he was one of just four to come home at the end of war, and that was despite surviving three plane crashes during his service, one of which saw him barely evading capture after being shot down by the Japanese.  Bush’s toughness should have never been questioned.

Yes, George H.W. Bush was a patrician and a WASP who was born in Massachusetts, the son of a U.S. Senator, and a student of prestigious schools such as Greenwich Country Day, Phillips Academy, and Yale University.  Still, there was an earthy, fun-loving, mischievous side to the 41st President — one that didn’t vanish when he became the most powerful man in the world.  We know that Bush went skydiving several times as a former President (another measure of his toughness) — he last jumped out of an airplane at the age of 85 in 2009 — but he also might be the only President in history to break out the bunny ears during a gathering of former Presidents and former First Ladies:

In Bob Greene’s Fraternity: A Journey In Search of Five Presidents (BOOKKINDLE), Greene seeks out five former Presidents (Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush 41) and gets a chance to spend time with all except the ailing Reagan.  In Greene’s wonderful book, the most surprising revelation is that Bush — the wealthy son of a Senator who had a famous family name when entered politics and didn’t have to overcome the poverty and obstacles that Nixon, Ford, and Carter faced — was the most down-to-Earth, easy-going of the four Presidents interviewed.  The two photos above give us a glimpse of that personality.

The bunny ears photo is obviously a clear example of Bush 41 not taking himself too seriously, the skydiving shows an adventurous spirit, but the photo at the beginning of the post is simply evidence that Presidents can have fun — even while they are in office and having every move watched by the public.

On August 19, 1989, George Herbert Walker Bush had been President for almost exactly eight months, and, along with his family, had traveled to his beloved home on Walker’s Point in Kennebunkport, Maine for a two-week-long vacation.  In order to promote boating safety, Coast Guard members videotaped an inspection of President Bush’s 28-foot speedboat, Fidelity, and Bush recorded a short public service announcement about the importance of carrying life jackets while boating.  Once the Coast Guard’s cameras turned off, the 65-year-old President received an old-fashioned family challenge.

Among those out on the water with Bush was his oldest child, 43-year-old George W. Bush, and George W.’s twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara.  The future President — still several years from entering the political arena on his own — dared his father to take a dive into the chilly Atlantic Ocean.  Egged on by his son, his granddaughters, and others who were out on the water with them, Bush 41 had no intention backing down.  Stripping down to his trousers, Bush prepared to take the bet.  Although he had just taped the message about life jackets, the President said he didn’t need one when a Coast Guard member suggested Bush wear one if he were going to the take the dive.  After all, Bush was once rescued by a submarine after treading water in the Pacific Ocean for over three hours during World War II, and he was quite confident in his swimming skills.

Before taking the dare, Bush decided to make some money off of it.  George W. didn’t think that the President would make the plunge, especially with other boats full of reporters swarming around Fidelity.  Bush 41 put Jenna and Barbara in charge of collecting bets, and joked to reporters, “You can’t report it unless you put something in the pot.”  After his granddaughters made their rounds and collected the bets, the President of the United States, bare-chested and barefoot, but wearing black trousers, followed through on George W.’s dare.  Diving into the 60-degree Atlantic Ocean waters off the coast of Maine, the President swam for about two minutes before climbing back into Fidelity.

Like the bunny ears photo, it was one of those wonderful, unguarded, fun moments where a President allowed himself to be humanized.  It’s rare that we see that side of our Presidents because now — only a bit more than 20 years later — everything is so choreographed and lacking in spontaneity that we often miss the human side of our Presidents and political leaders.

By the way, for winning the bet and taking the dare of the man who would later become the 43rd President, Bush 41’s twin granddaughters handed the 41st President a grand total of $11.

Asker Anonymous Asks:
would you say that the Bush family is elected because of their name
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

It certainly doesn’t hurt.  

Listen, I certainly have my issues with George W. Bush, but stop and think about this for a second:  Maybe the Bush family gets elected because they are the only Republican candidates capable of capturing some moderates and conservative Democrats in a national election because, to a lot of reasonable people, the GOP is frighteningly extremist and out-of-touch.  Is that possible?  This country hasn’t elected a Republican President not named “Bush” in THIRTY YEARS.

And #42 continues to be the coolest President ever.

Asker Anonymous Asks:
Sorry if this is a dumb question but when Bush 41 was president was he called George H. W. Bush or Bush Sr. I wasn't born until 1992 so I don't know. thanks!!!!!
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

First of all, thanks a lot for making me feel old.  

Your question isn’t dumb at all.  During his Presidency (and throughout his earlier career), Bush 41 was simply “George Bush”.  His middle initials were not widely used until 1999 when it was clear that George W. Bush was a serious contender for the Presidency.

It’s kind of funny how strange it felt to refer to him as “George H.W. Bush” before getting used to it.  Now, referring to him as just “George Bush” would seem weird despite the fact that we called him by that name for 12 years throughout his Presidency and Vice Presidency (and, for folks older than me, during his time in Congress, running the Republican National Committee, and serving as CIA Director).

Two American Presidents woke up in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. Neither of them were the two men who actually served as President on that tragic day — John F. Kennedy or Lyndon B. Johnson.

The 37th President of the United States, 50-year-old Richard Nixon, had arrived in Dallas on November 20th for a conference of the American Bottlers of Carbonated Beverages on behalf of Pepsi-Cola, a company that his New York law firm was representing.  On November 21st, Nixon sat down with reporters in his room at the Baker Hotel, where he criticized many of the policies of President Kennedy, his 1960 opponent, who would be arriving in Dallas the next day.  That night, Nixon and Pepsi executives including actress Joan Crawford, who had been married to Pepsi’s chairman, Alfred Steele, until his death in 1959, were entertained at the Statler Hilton.

In the early morning of November 22nd, a car dropped Nixon off, alone, at Love Field, the Dallas airport that would host President and Mrs. Kennedy, Vice President Johnson and Mrs. Johnson, and Texas Governor John Connally and his wife in just a few hours.  Nixon later remembered the flags and signs displayed along the motorcade route that Kennedy would soon follow.  Nixon approached the American Airlines ticket counter to check-in for his flight to New York City and told the attendant, “It looks like you’re going to have a big day today.”

Nixon landed several hours later in New York at an airport that would be renamed after John F. Kennedy a month later.  He described what happened next in his 1978 autobiography, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon:

Arriving in New York, I hailed a cab home.  We drove through Queens toward the 59th Street Bridge, and as we stopped at a traffic light, a man rushed over from the curb and started talking to the driver.  I heard him say, “Do you have a radio in your cab?  I just heard that Kennedy was shot.”  We had no radio, and as we continued into Manhattan a hundred thoughts rushed through my mind.  The man could have been crazy or a macabre prankster.  He could have been mistaken about what he had heard; or perhaps a gunman might have shot at Kennedy but missed or only wounded him.  I refused to believe that he could have been killed.

As the cab drew up in front of my building, the doorman ran out.  Tears were streaming down his cheeks.  “Oh, Mr. Nixon, have you heard, sir?” he asked.  “It’s just terrible.  They’ve killed President Kennedy.”

The close 1960 Presidential election changed the relationship between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, but they had once been very close.  When they first entered Congress together in 1947, they considered each other personal friends, and when Nixon ran for the Senate from California in 1950, JFK stopped into Nixon’s office and dropped off a financial contribution to Nixon’s campaign from Kennedy’s father.  Nixon would later write that he felt as bad on the night of Kennedy’s assassination as he had when he lost two brothers to tuberculosis when he was very young.  That night, he wrote an emotional letter to Jacqueline Kennedy:

Dear Jackie,

In this tragic hour Pat and I want you to know that our thoughts and prayers are with you.

While the hand of fate made Jack and me political opponents I always cherished the fact that we were personal friends from the time we came to the Congress together in 1947.  That friendship evidenced itself in many ways including the invitation we received to attend your wedding.

Nothing I could say now could add to the splendid tributes which have come from throughout the world to him.

But I want you to know that the nation will also be forever grateful for your service as First Lady.  You brought to the White House charm, beauty and elegance as the official hostess of America, and the mystique of the young in heart which was uniquely yours made an indelible impression on the American consciousness.

If in the days ahead we could be helpful in any way we shall be honored to be at your command.

Dick Nixon 


On the morning of November 22, 1963, the 41st President of the United States also woke up in Dallas, Texas.  George Herbert Walker Bush was the 39-year-old president of the Zapata Off-Shore Drilling Company and chairman of the Harris County, Texas Republican Party, and had stayed the night of November 21st at the Dallas Sheraton alongside his wife, Barbara.  Bush was planning a bid for the U.S. Senate in 1964 and making the rounds to line up support amongst many Texans who considered him far too moderate.  One of the groups that was strongest in opposition to Bush was the ultra-right wing John Birch Society, which had recently been lodging vehement protests against President Kennedy’s upcoming visit to Dallas.

Conspiracy theorists claim that there were far more sinister motives for George Bush being in Dallas on November 22, 1963.  Some claim that Bush was a secret CIA operative involved in planning or even carrying out the assassination of President Kennedy.  Some even argue that a grainy photograph of a man resembling Bush taken shortly after the assassination proves that Bush was actually in Dealey Plaza at the time of Kennedy’s shooting.

He wasn’t.  He wasn’t even in Dallas.  We know where George Herbert Walker Bush was at the time of JFK’s assassination — we have plenty of eyewitnesses who can confirm it.  While Lee Harvey Oswald was shooting President Kennedy, George Bush was about 100 miles away from Dallas, in Tyler, Texas, speaking at a Kiwanis Club luncheon.  Like Nixon, Bush and his wife, Barbara, had also boarded a plane that morning in Dallas — a private plane that transported them to Tyler for the Kiwanis Club event.  While Bush was speaking, word of the President’s assassination reached the luncheon and the local club president, Wendell Cherry, leaned over and gave the news to Bush.  Bush quickly notified the crowd, and said, “In view of the President’s death, I consider it inappropriate to continue with a political speech at this time.”  He ended his speech and sat down while the luncheon broke up in stunned silence. 

Bush’s wife, Barbara, wasn’t at the Kiwanis Club luncheon.  While her husband was speaking, Barbara Bush went to a beauty parlor in Tyler to get her hair styled.  As her hair was being done, Barbara began writing a letter to family and heard the news over the radio that JFK had been shot and then that the President had died.  In her 1994 memoir, Barbara included the letter, part of which said:

I am writing this at the Beauty Parlor, and the radio says that the President has been shot.  Oh Texas — my Texas — my God — let’s hope it’s not true.  I am sick at heart as we all are.  Yes, the story is true and the Governor also.  How hateful some people are.

Since, the beauty parlor, the President has died.  We are once again on a plane.  This time a commercial plane.  Poppy (George H.W. Bush’s family nickname) picked me up at the beauty parlor — we went right to the airport, flew to Ft. Worth and dropped Mr. Zeppo off (we were on his plane) and flew back to Dallas.  We had to circle the field while the second Presidential plane took off.  Immediately, Pop got tickets back to Houston, and here we are flying home.  We are sick at heart.  The tales the radio reporters tell of Jackie Kennedy are the bravest.  We are hoping that it is not some far-right nut, but a “commie” nut.  You understand that we know they are both nuts, but just hope that it is not a Texan and not an American at all.

I am amazed by the rapid-fire thinking and planning that has already been done.  LBJ has been the President for some time now — two hours at least and it is only 4:30.

My dearest love to you all,

As Barbara Bush noted in her letter, the Bushes did not stay another night at the Dallas Sheraton on November 22nd, as they had originally planned.  They returned to Dallas on the private jet that had transported them to Tyler earlier in the day, and caught a commercial flight home to Houston.  The “second Presidential plane” that took off while Bush’s plane circled Love Field was the plane that had transported Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to Dallas earlier that day, Air Force Two.  Johnson was already heading back to Washington, now on Air Force One, with the casket of John F. Kennedy.


The 37th President of the United States and the 41st President of the United States woke up in Dallas, Texas on the morning of November 22, 1963.  The 31st President, 89-year-old Herbert Hoover, was in failing health in the elegant suite he called home at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria.  Within the next few weeks, he would be visited by the new President, Lyndon Johnson, and President Kennedy’s grieving widow, Jackie, and the President’s brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy.  The 33rd President, 79-year-old Harry Truman, learned of JFK’s death in Missouri, while the 34th President, 73-year-old Dwight D. Eisenhower, heard of the assassination while attending a meeting at the United Nations in New York.  Truman and Eisenhower would squash a long, bitter personal feud that weekend while attending Kennedy’s funeral in Washington.  The 38th President, 50-year-old Michigan Congressman Gerald Ford, was driving home with his wife Betty after attending a parent conference with their son Jack’s teacher when they heard the news on the radio in their car.  Two days later, President Johnson would call on Ford to serve on the Warren Commission investigating the assassination.  

The 39th President, Jimmy Carter was 39 years old and had just gotten off a tractor near the warehouse of his Plains, Georgia peanut farm when a group of farmers informed him of the news of the shooting.  Carter found a quiet area, kneeled down in prayer, and when he heard that Kennedy had died, cried for the first time since his father had died ten years earlier.  Ronald Reagan, the 40th President, was 52 years old and preparing for a run as Governor of California.  A little more than 17 years later, the now-President Reagan would also be shot by a lone gunman in the middle of the day.  While Reagan would survive the attempt on his life, it was very nearly fatal and reminded his wife, Nancy, of November 22, 1963.  As she was transported to George Washington Hospital following Reagan’s shooting, Nancy would later note, “As my mind raced, I flashed to scenes of Parkland Memorial Hospital in Texas, and the day President Kennedy was shot.  I had been driving down San Vicente Boulevard in Los Angeles when a bulletin came over the car radio.  Now, more than seventeen years later, I prayed that history would not be repeated, that Washington would not become another Dallas.  That my husband would live.”

The 41st President, Bill Clinton, and the 43rd President, George W. Bush, were both 17 years old and in school — Bush at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and Clinton at Hot Springs High School in Hot Springs, Arkansas.  Clinton was in his fourth period calculus class when his teacher was called out of the room and returned to announce that President Kennedy had been killed.  Four months earlier, Clinton had traveled to Washington with the Boys Nation program and, during a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House, pushed his way to the front of the line and shook President Kennedy’s hand.  The 44th President, Barack Obama, was a 2-year-old living in Hawaii.


The 35th President, 46-year-old John F. Kennedy, would die in Dallas on November 22, 1963.  Lyndon B. Johnson, 55, would become the 36th President in Dallas that day.  But they woke up that morning in Fort Worth at the Texas Hotel.  Kennedy had slept the last night of his life in suite 850 on the eighth floor, now the Presidential suite.  LBJ had slept the last night of his Vice Presidency in the much more expensive and elegant Will Rogers Suite on the thirteenth floor.  The Secret Service had vetoed the Will Rogers Suite for the President because it was more difficult to secure.  It was raining in Fort Worth as they woke up, but the skies had cleared by the time they landed in Dallas.  Before breakfast, President Kennedy, Vice President Johnson, and Texas Governor John Connally headed outside and briefly addressed a crowd that had gathered long before the sun had come up in hopes of seeing JFK.  Jacqueline Kennedy didn’t accompany them outside and President Kennedy joked to the crowd, “Mrs. Kennedy is organizing herself.  It takes her a little longer but, of course, she looks better than we do when she does it.”

Afterward, they headed inside for breakfast in the Texas Hotel’s Grand Ballroom with several hundred guests.  The President sent for Mrs. Kennedy to join them, and her late arrival to the breakfast excited the guests in the ballroom.  When the President spoke to the group, he joked again, “Two years ago I introduced myself in Paris as the man who had accompanied Mrs. Kennedy to Paris.  I’m getting somewhat that same sensation as I travel around Texas.”  Then he noted, “Nobody wonders what Lyndon and I wear.”

When the breakfast ended, the Kennedys headed upstairs and had an hour or so to wait before heading to the airport for the short flight to Dallas.  It was during this time that Jackie Kennedy saw a hateful ad placed in that morning’s Dallas Morning News accusing President Kennedy of collusion with Communists and treasnous activity.  Trying to calm Jackie down, the President joked, “Oh, we’re heading into nut country today.”  But a few minutes later, Jackie overheard Kennedy telling his aide, Ken O’Donnell, “It would not be a very difficult job to shoot the President of the United States.  All you’d have to do is get up in a high building with a high-powered rifle with a telescopic sight, and there’s nothing anybody can do.”


Even though the trip from Fort Worth’s Carswell Air Force Base to Dallas’s Love Field would only take thirteen minutes by air, the trip to Texas was first-and-foremost a political trip — a kickoff of sorts to JFK’s 1964 re-election campaign — and a grand entrance was needed.  So, JFK and Jackie boarded the plane usually used as Air Force One, LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson boarded the plane usually used by the Vice President, Air Force Two, and the huge Presidential party took to the skies, covering thirty miles in thirteen minutes, in order to get the big Dallas welcome that they were hoping for.  They landed in Dallas at 11:40 AM, and President Kennedy looked out the window of his plane, saw a big, happy crowd, and told Ken O’Donnell, “This trip is turning out to be terrific.  Here we are in Dallas, and it looks like everything in Texas is going to be fine for us.”

At 2:47 PM — just three hours and seven minutes later — everyone was back on Air Force One as the plane climbed off of the Love Field runway and into the Dallas sky.  John F. Kennedy, the 35th President, was in a casket wedged into a space in the rear of Air Force One where two rows of seats had been removed so that it would be fit.  Lyndon B. Johnson had officially been sworn in as the 36th President about ten minutes earlier on the plane by federal judge Sarah T. Hughes.  On one side of Johnson while he took the oath was his wife, Lady Bird, and on the other side, the widowed former First Lady, Jackie Kennedy, still wearing a pink dress splattered with her husband’s blood and brain matter.

Two American Presidents woke up in Dallas on November 22, 1963 — Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush — but they weren’t in town when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, no matter how many ways conspiracy theorists try to twist the story.  The President who died in Dallas that day, John F. Kennedy, and the man who became President in Dallas that day, Lyndon B. Johnson, woke up in Fort Worth on the morning of November 22, 1963.  But they’ll be forever linked with Dallas — and the world that woke up the next morning would never be the same again.    

Great article on a great man by Mark Updegrove, Director of the LBJ Library.

Asker bbkld Asks:
In your opinion, which successful POTUS candidate had the most congenial post-election relationship with the person he beat? And who had the worst? Related to this, I always got a kick out of former President Clinton and former Senator Dole being simultaneous members of the Senate Spouses Club, this due to Hillary and Elizabeth being senators from their respective states.
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

President Clinton and Bob Dole being Senate Spouses is pretty great.  Clinton and Dole are right up near the top of the list when it comes to former campaign rivals who enjoyed a friendly relationship afterward.  I think it would probably have to be Clinton and George H. W. Bush, though.  I love reading about how close they are and how Clinton’s basically been adopted into the Bush Family.

Honorable mentions would go to Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford who bonded after their 1976 campaign against each other.  Also, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie.  Despite losing to FDR in 1940, Willkie gave Roosevelt his support as the U.S. entered World War II.  FDR even sent Willkie to Europe as a special envoy during the war.  Of course, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had themselves a little bit of a beef that turned into one of history’s most fascinating friendships as they aged.

Worst?  The relationship between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams was pretty nasty and I’d be stunned if there wasn’t some animosity between George W. Bush and Al Gore, but I’m going to go with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover.  At one point, FDR and Hoover were quite friendly, but issues heated up between them during the transition after FDR beat Hoover in the 1932 election.  Once FDR was President, Hoover was treated as if he were radioactive.  Despite Hoover’s massive success in relief efforts during the first World War, FDR asked nothing from Hoover.  After FDR died, it only took a few days before President Truman contacted Hoover for advice and to put him to work.

1.  Why is there not a reality show that just follows President Clinton and President Bush around as they travel around the country in a bus in a national tour to cheer everybody up?

2.  No, seriously.  As divided as the United States has been over the past decade, wouldn’t it be wonderful to see our two most beloved living former Presidents — former campaign adversaries — drive around the country and just drop in at Waffle Houses or bowling alleys and hang out with regular Americans?  I guarantee it would calm people down, ease tensions, and heal the nation’s wounds.

3.  William Jefferson Clinton, the 42nd President of the United States of America, used the hashtag “#sockswag” in reference to the unique footwear of the 41st President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush.    

4.  Sure, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson engaged in one of history’s epic pen pal relationships following their Presidencies, but Adams never shaved his head to show support for a child fighting cancer or wore multi-colored cactus socks.  And Thomas Jefferson wrote a lot of famous words, but he never used the term “sockswag”, so I think it’s pretty clear that Bush41/Clinton > Adams/Jefferson.


Forget about politics and political differences and even history for at least a few moments.  It was 60 years this October when Robin, the second child of George H.W. and Barbara Bush, tragically died of leukemia at the age of 4.  Losing their 4-year-old daughter dramatically altered the lives of the young parents, as well as Robin’s 7-year-old brother, George W., who later remembered that he would work hard as a child to make his grief-stricken mother smile or laugh.

Some things are bigger than politics and one of those things is my admiration for George Herbert Walker Bush, who I’ve always respected and has now done something that I love.  When Patrick, the 2-year-old son of one of the members of the former President’s Secret Service detail was diagnosed with leukemia this spring, the Bush family was quick to donate to Patrick’s Pals in order to help pay for Patrick’s treatment. But the 41st President of the United States went even further.

As noticed the men on his protective detail shaving their heads in solidarity with their colleague’s ailing son, Bush wanted to support them, as well.  This week, the 89-year-old former President shaved his head, as well.  Political differences — whether they are serious or petty — can sometimes cloud our judgment of one another as human beings.  But there’s nothing cloudy or hazy about this gesture — an old man at one end of a long, illustrious life supporting a little boy facing adversity at the very beginning of a life that will hopefully be as long and successful as the old man’s.

It’s a simple gesture and one that lesser-known people frequently make to show their support of their own ailing friends and family.  But I love this.  I think it’s beautiful.  And, at some point, I’ll answer another question on this site or write another essay where I focus on his politics or his history as President, but I hope I don’t forget to note that George H.W. Bush is a damn good man and I’m proud we elected a man like him as our President.

You can donate to Patrick’s Pals and help with his leukemia treatment.  Also, please consider giving your support (even if it’s just a Facebook ‘like’) to the Rich Cronin Hope Foundation for Leukemia in honor of my dear friend Rich Cronin who passed away in 2010 after a long battle with the disease.  You can also help by registering with Be The Match and potentially save lives by joining the National Marrow Donor Program.

As I mentioned in the last post about What It Takes: The Way To The White House (BOOKKINDLE), Richard Ben Cramer spent so much time getting to know and understand the six 1988 Presidential contenders that he focused on in his masterpiece of political journalism that parts of the book come across as six distinct biographies weaved together with the overall drama of the 1988 campaign and the complexities of Presidential politics leading to Election Day.

Before Richard Ben Cramer died in January 2013, he had been working on piecing together some of that biographical information from What It Takes into an actual biography of the man who eventually won that 1988 election — George Herbert Walker Bush, 41st President of the United States.

In Being Poppy: A Portrait of George Herbert Walker Bush (BOOKKINDLE), Cramer has repurposed many of the fascinating stories about Bush 41’s life that Cramer learned not only through research, but by traveling with Bush, the Bush Family, and Bush’s loyal staff during the 1988 campaign that elevated the former World War II combat pilot from the Vice Presidency to the White House.  Being Poppy, drawn from the pages of What It Takes and the result of Richard Ben Cramer’s unique access to George H.W. Bush, is perhaps the most personal book ever written about the patriarch of America’s foremost modern political family.


The USS Finback, a 312-foot-long Gato-class submarine surfaced a little before noon on September 2, 1944 in the treacherous waters near Chichi Jima, the site of a Japanese military base on one of the Bonin Islands, approximately 150 miles north of Iwo Jima.  The Finback was assigned “lifeguard duty” and was performing search and rescue missions for American airmen who had been shot down in action and might have survived via bail-out or crash landing.

Earlier that morning, four TBM Avenger aircraft had launched from the USS San Jacinto targeting radio installations on Chichi Jima.  At around 8:30 AM, one of the Avengers was blasted by Japanese anti-aircraft shells as it made its bombing run over the island.  With the plane on fire and losing control, the pilot continued his run, dropping his four 500-pound bombs on the target he had been given that morning on the San Jacinto.  Turning back towards the sea, smoke and flames filled the cockpit, choking the crew of three.  Working hard to create distance between the island and the failing aircraft, the pilot ordered his crew to bail out by parachute, shouting “Hit the silk!” over the Avenger’s radio.

As the pilot exited the aircraft, his head smashed into the plane’s tail, slicing a thick gash above his eye, tearing panels from his chute, and sending him plummeting towards the sea at a higher rate of speed than he should have been.  Still, he splashed down in the Pacific Ocean and another American plane dropped a life raft near him.  He was alive.  He was alone.

On Chichi Jima, four miles to the southwest, Japanese authorities began to organize a search party to capture any downed American pilots who might have survived.  Boats were launched to find them.  The pilot, stung by a Portuguese man-o-war, vomiting from ingesting sea water, and dazed from the trauma of the attack and the bleeding head wound, still had the presence of mind to begin paddling away from Chichi Jima.  Allied forces never captured Chichi Jima during the war, and reports of atrocities ranging from Japanese soldiers summarily beheading Allied prisoners to cannibalism of POWs by Japanese troops led to the post-war execution of five of Chichi Jima’s leading officers, including the commander, Major Sueo Matoba.

The current was sweeping the Avenger’s pilot towards Chichi Jima and he desperately paddled against it and out into the open sea.  Other members of his aerial squadron opened fire to keep away the Japanese boats heading towards him while another American aircraft radioed the downed pilot’s position to the Finback, which steamed towards him.

When the submarine surfaced, it was unclear to the pilot whether he had been rescued or captured.  Then five American submariners appeared on the deck.  Grainy video footage, now nearly 70 years old, survives of the Finback's submariners fishing the gangly, 6'2” pilot from the sea after his three-hour-long ordeal battling injuries and the Pacific Ocean.  

Like so many of the soldiers and sailors risking and sacrificing their lives on distant continents and in remote seas; like the men who saved his life on that September 2, 1944, the pilot was very young — just 20 years old.

His name was George Herbert Walker Bush. 


Today, George H.W. Bush celebrates his 89th birthday and is one of the longest-living Presidents in American history.  He was 17 years old and attending the elite Philips Academy boarding school in Andover, Massachusetts when Pearl Harbor was bombed.  As Bush and many of his fellow well-to-do classmates prepared to graduate in 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson gave a commencement address urging the patrician prep school grads to go to college first rather than to enlist in the war.  Four days after graduating, Bush turned 18 years old and immediately enlisted in the United States Navy.

With the influence of his father, Bush could have found himself in any number of safe, stateside jobs in the service.  Instead, he became the Navy’s youngest fighter pilot.  Even before being shot down over Chichi Jima, Bush had experienced the rough landings of flight training and ravages of war.  During training, he totaled a plane during a crash landing.  In June 1944, he was forced to ditch his plane — fully-loaded with bombs — in the sea during a mission, escaped the plane just before it exploded, and had to be rescued by the USS Bronson.  By the war’s end, Bush had flown 58 combat missions during 1,228 hours of total flight time.  There were 14 pilots who originally formed Bush’s VT-51 torpedo bomber flight squadron; when he was discharged from the service in September 1945, Bush and just three other pilots from that squadron survived.

Yet, it wasn’t what he saw that haunted George H.W. Bush — indeed, what haunts him still today.  It was what he didn’t see as he parachuted out of the burning wreckage of his TBM Avenger on September 2, 1944.  Or who he didn’t see.


As Bush prepared to bomb Chichi Jima that morning, he was joined by two crew members in his TBM Avenger, tailgunner Ted White and radioman John Delaney.  At 26, White was a few years older than Bush, but their fathers had been classmates at Yale, which created an obvious connection between the two young men aboard the San Jacinto.  White wasn’t a normal member of Bush’s crew but, that morning, requested that he be allowed to replace Bush’s regular tailgunner, Leo Nadeau, and received permission.

When their plane was hit, Bush did all he could to order his two crewmembers to bail out of the plane and assist them in doing so, but the black smoke and flames tearing through the aircraft made it impossible for the pilot to see if White and Delaney had indeed exited the plane.  Not only had Bush turned the badly-damaged plane out towards the sea, but he dipped the wings to make it easier for the crew members to pop open their door on the left side of the aircraft and bail out.  By doing this, Bush cost himself some precious time and made his own exit from the Avenger more difficult — perhaps the reason he slammed against the tail of the aircraft as he parachuted out.

Other American pilots in Bush’s squadron that morning said that they noticed two parachutes deploy from Bush’s Avenger.  As Bush plummeted towards the Pacific Ocean, he scanned the sky for the chutes of Delaney and White, but saw neither.  As he paddled with one hand in his life raft to get as far away from the coast of Chichi Jima as possible, Bush continued to search the sky and the sea for his crewmates.  But it was to no avail.  John Delaney and Ted White were never found.  If one of the two men did bail out of the plane with Bush and deploy his parachute, he was immediately lost and the same pilots that radioed Bush’s position to the Finback never located him.  The other man most likely went down with the crippled TBM Avenger.

Nearly 60 years later, when Bush’s son had also been elected President of the United States, Bush visited the Bonin Islands and spoke to CNN about his ordeal.  With all of the experiences of his life — all of the triumphs and tragedies — it was the loss of Ted White and John Delaney which continued to weigh heavily on George H.W. Bush.  “I wake up at night and think about it sometimes,” the former President told CNN, “Could I have done something differently?  I’m not haunted by anything other than the fact I feel a responsibility for the lives of the two people that were killed.  I wonder if I could have done something different?  I wonder who got out of the plane?  I wonder — wonder why the chute didn’t open for the other guy?  Why me?  Why am I blessed?  Why am I still alive?  That has plagued me.”

How much did it plague George H.W. Bush?  When the author and historian James Bradley interviewed the former President about his story for Bradley’s book Flyboys, Bush startled Bradley by asking the author if he had any new information about the fates of John Delaney and Ted White.  


When the Finback surfaced and fished George Herbert Walker Bush out of the sea, the submariners treated him for his wounds, fed him, gave him new clothes to wear, and he became a part of the Finback crew — an honorary submariner — for the next month, as the submarine continued its mission, patrolling hot spots in the Pacific Theater just in case another downed pilot required rescue.

Everything was still raw when the future President sat down the next day at a typewriter on the Finback and pecked out a letter to his parents back home in Connecticut.  It is the testament of a 20-year-old man born with all of the advantages in the world, sharing his story with his parents and letting them know how the war had touched him…and how it could easily touch them:

Dear Mother and Dad,

This will be the first letter you have gotten from me in a good long while.  I wish I could tell you that as I write this I am feeling well and happy.  Physically I am O.K., but I am troubled inside and with good cause.  Here is the whole story at least as much of it as I am allowed to relate right now.

Yesterday was a day which will long stand in my memory.  I was on a bombing hop with Delaney as my radioman and Lt. (j.g.) Ted White as my gunner.  He did not usually fly, but I asked him if he would like to go with me and he wanted to.  We had the usual joking around in the ready room about having to bail out etc. — at that time it all seemed so friendly and innocent but now it seems awful and sinister.

I will have to skip all the details of the attack as they would not pass the censorship, but the fact remains that we got hit.  The cockpit filled with smoke and I told the boys in back to get their parachutes on.  They didn’t answer at all, but I looked around and couldn’t see Ted in the turret so I assumed he had gone below to get his chute fastened on.  I headed the plane out to sea and put on the throttle so as we could get away from the land as much as possible.  I am not too clear about the next parts.  I told them to bail out, and then I called up the skipper and told him I was bailing out.  My crewmen never acknowledged either transmission, and yet the radio gear was working — at least mine was and unless they had been hit back there theirs should have been, as we had talked not long before.  I heard the skipper say something but things were happening so fast that I don’t quite remember what it was.  I turned the plane up in an attitude so as to take pressure off the back hatch so the boys could get out.  After that I straightened up and started to get out myself.  At that time I felt certain that they had bailed out.  The cockpit was full of smoke and I was choking from it.  I glanced at the wings and noticed that they were on fire.  I still do not know where we got hit and never will.  I am now beginning to think that perhaps some of the fragments may have either killed the two in back, or possibly knocked out their communications.

Fortunately I had fastened all my straps before the dive and also I had left my hatch open, something I hadn’t been doing before.  Just the day before I had asked the skipper and he advised leaving it open in a dive.  The jump itself wasn’t too bad.  I stuck my head out first and the old wind really blew me the rest of the way out.  I do remember tugging at my radio cord which I had forgotten to unplug.  As I left the plane my head struck the tail.  I now have a cut head and bruised eye but it is far from serious.  After jumping, I must have pulled the ripcord too soon for when I was floating down, I looked up at the canopy and several of the panels were all ripped out.  Just as I got floating down, I saw the plane strike the water.  In the meantime, I noticed that there was a liferaft down in the water.  Not until later did I discover that it was mine that was supposed to be attached to my lifejacket.  I had forgotten to hook it on, and when I left the plane it had come loose and had fallen into the water.  Fortunately, the wind didn’t carry me too far away from the raft.  The entrance into the water was not too bad.  I had unloosened several of my chute straps so that when it came to getting out of the harness I wouldn’t have too many buckles to undo under the water.  I went fairly deep when I hit, but not deep enough to notice any pressure or anything.  I shook the harness and the wind carried the chute away on the water.  The wind was blowing towards shore, so I made every effort to head the other way.  The skipper saw me and he saw my raft, so he made a pass over it to point it out to me.  I had inflated my mae west [sailors called their inflatable yellow life vests “Mae Wests”] and then started swimming towards the raft.  Fortunately, the fall hadn’t injured the boat, so it inflated easily and I struggled into it.  I then realized that I had overexerted myself swimming, because suddenly I felt quite tired.  I was still afraid that the wind would take me in closer so I began paddling.  It was a hell of a job to keep the water out of the raft.  In fact I never did get it bailed out completely.  At first I was scared that perhaps a boat would put out from shore which was very close by, but I guess our planes made them think twice about that.  A few fighter planes stayed nearby the whole time until I was rescued and you can imagine how comfortable that was.  One of them came right over me and dropped me some medical supplies which were most welcome, since I had no idea how badly cut up I was.  It turned out to be slight, but did use the iodine anyway.  I had some dye marker attached to my life jacket and also there was some in the raft so I sprinkled a bit of that on the water so the planes could see me easily.  I took inventory of my supplies and discovered that I had no water.  The water had broken open when the raft fell from the plane I imagine.  I had a mirror and some other equipment, and also was wearing my own gun and knife.

There was no sign of Del or Ted anywhere around.  I looked as I floated down and afterwards kept my eye open from the raft, but to no avail.  The fact that our planes didn’t seem to be searching anymore showed me pretty clearly that they had not gotten out.  I’m afraid I was pretty much of a sissy about it cause I sat in my raft and sobbed for awhile.  It bothers me so very much.  I did tell them and when I bailed out I felt that they must have gone, and yet now I feel so terribly responsible for their fate, Oh so much right now.  Perhaps as the days go by it will all change and I will be able to look upon it in a different light.

I floated around for a couple of hours during which time I was violently sick to my stomach, and then the planes started zooming me, pointing out my position to my rescuers.  You can imagine how happy I was when I saw this submarine hove into view.  They pulled me out of the raft and took me below where they fixed me up in grand style.  As I write this I am aboard the sub — don’t know how long I will be here, or when I will get back to the squadron.

As I said physically I am o.k.  The food aboard here is unequaled anywhere I have ever seen.  I am getting plenty of sleep and am even standing watches so that I will get the air occasionally.  My back ached as did my leg last nite, and also my seat was a bit sore from the chute straps, but the pharmacist mate rubbed me down and today I feel much better.  Last nite I rolled and tossed.  I kept reliving the whole experience.  My heart aches for the families of those two boys with me.  Delaney had always been a fine loyal crewman.  His devotion to duty was at all times highly commendable and his personality most pleasing.  I shall most certainly write to his family after I am sure they have been notified by the Bureau.

As for Ted White, I have spoken of him several times in my letters before.  He was the fellow from Yale, one class ahead of Stu Clement [Bush’s first cousin].  He comes from St. Paul Minn.  White Bear Lake to be exact.  Perhaps Dad, you know the family.  If so do not write them until you get the word from me or elsewhere that the family has been officially notified.  There is a possibility that they parachuted and I didn’t see them, but I am afraid it is quite remote as we received a message aboard here last nite saying that only one chute opened.  All in all it is terribly discouraging and frankly it bothers me a good deal.

As time goes by I shall add bits to this letter and will mail it at my earliest possible convenience.  I shall do the same by Bar, but shall not go into detail like this over my experience so please read her the parts of the letter which might interest her.  It’s a funny thing how much I thought about Bar during the whole experience.  What I wouldn’t give to be with her right now.  Just to see that lovely face and those beautiful eyes and to know she was by my side.  Right now I long to be with you so much.  To be with you both and to be with Bar is my main desire — at least it won’t be too long, the time is going by quite rapidly.

Please excuse all my misspellings — they are caused not from ignorance but from carelessness in operating this machine.

much much love to you all,
your ever devoted and loving son,


As he celebrates his 89th birthday, George Herbert Walker Bush has been many things to many people, and has done so much for so many more.

During the Vietnam War, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s song “Fortunate Son” sang: "It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no Senator’s son/It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, no."

Not too long after World War II, George H.W. Bush was a Senator’s son — his father Prescott was elected to the U.S. Senate from Connecticut.  Later, George Bush blazed his own trail.  Oilman.  U.S. Representative from Texas.  An unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Senate from Texas (encouraged by the Texas Democrat and President Lyndon B. Johnson that the difference between the House and the Senate was the difference between “chicken shit and chicken salad”).  U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.  Chairman of the Republican National Committee.  Chief U.S. Liasion in China.  CIA Director.  Vice President of the United States under Ronald Reagan.  President of the United States (“41”).  Father of a President (“43”) and Governor.

But before everything — George Herbert Walker Bush was a war hero.  And he was a war hero because of his love, honor, and duty to his country.

Just don’t ask George Bush if he was a war hero.

"It was just part of my duty.  People say ‘war hero’.  How come a guy who gets his airplane shot down is a hero and a guy who’s good enough that he doesn’t get shot down is not?  Ask [John F.] Kennedy about it, why are you a hero?  ‘They sank my boat.’  Why am I a hero?  They shot down my airplane."

Speaking of former President George H.W. Bush, at today’s dedication of his son’s George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas, the 88-year-old patriarch of the Bush Family was surrounded by four other Presidents, First Ladies, other dignitaries, scores of media, and nearly 10,000 visitors.

Yet, despite all of those people and the fact that it was supposed to be a day honoring the career and Administration of the 43rd President, poor #43 (as well as #39, #42, and #44) was upstaged by, of all things, President #41’s bitchin’ socks.  And, as TIME shows in this photo gallery, a wheelchair may have robbed Papa Bush of his ability to continue skydiving but it’s also introduced the world to George Herbert Walker Bush: War Hero, President…Sock Fashionista.