Dead Presidents

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

By Anthony Bergen
E-Mail: bergen.anthony@gmail.com
Posts tagged "George W. Bush"
Asker bbkld Asks:
This is kind of a wide open question: In your opinion, when was the single most difficult day of the American Presidency? There's the days a President decides to send American youth to war, for instance. For me, it may be the day LBJ became POTUS with his predecessor's widow standing next to him.
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

That is such a GREAT question because the answer can go so many different ways and spur some fantastic debate. The Presidency is a difficult and terribly exhausting job every day and most Presidents have faced a lot of adversity throughout their terms simply because of the very nature of the position and its responsibilities. There are dozens of individual days that are hard to argue with if they are suggested by someone to be the most difficult single day faced by a President over the 225 years that the job has been in service.

I think that the day you suggested is undoubtedly near the top of the list, as are any of the days when a Vice President assumes the office upon the assassination or death from natural causes of the incumbent President, and November 22, 1963 was, of course, one of the darkest days in the nation’s history. The emotions and thoughts possessed by the people on Air Force One as LBJ took the oath office and they prepared to fly back to Washington, D.C. with JFK in a casket just a couple of hours after he arrived in Dallas on that same airplane very much alive are unimaginable. There are just no words for a tragedy of that magnitude, and, as you mentioned, the presence of a newly-widowed Jackie Kennedy, clearly in shock and standing in the crowded cabin of the plane with her husband’s blood and brain matter staining her clothing, adds a whole different dimension to the tragic day and was a hell of a way for someone to begin their Presidency. There was also the fact that nobody knew the scope of the assassination and whether there might be something even more sinister — an international conspiracy or a plot to decapitate the entire federal government — going on. Plus, LBJ was the only President to actually witness his predecessor’s assassination. As if a Presidential assassination isn’t shocking and traumatic enough, Johnson was only a couple of cars back in the motorcade. He saw what happened and he was taken to Parkland Hospital right behind JFK; LBJ caught a glimpse of the scene inside JFK’s limousine as the Secret Service past the vehicle in order to keep him protected inside the hospital; Johnson was in the building when Kennedy was officially pronounced dead. I’ve always thought that one of the strangest feelings ever experienced by a President had to have been when an aide entered the room where LBJ was being held inside Parkland Hospital and addressed him as “Mr. President” — the moment he realized that JFK was dead and that he was now President. Imagine that.

And yet, even with everything mentioned above, I think there are two other more difficult days faced by Presidents. One is April 12, 1945 — another day in which a President died in office and was succeeded by his Vice President. In this case, it was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who died suddenly at his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia, and was succeeded by Harry S Truman.

FDR was clearly dying when he won an unprecedented fourth term as President in 1944, and his health was declining noticeably. When he took the oath of office for his fourth term in January 1945, FDR was sworn in on the South Portico of the White House instead of at the U.S. Capitol. It was said that the inaugural festivities were scaled back because of World War II and that certainly played a part, but FDR’s failing health was also a factor. At just 557 words, Roosevelt’s Inaugural Address was the second-shortest in American history — only George Washington’s second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1793), which was 135 words long, was shorter than FDR’s fourth. After the physically taxing trip and summit with Stalin and Churchill at Yalta and meetings with other Allied leaders in February 1945 — a journey which would have been punishing for even a healthy person — FDR gave a report on the agreements to a Joint Session of Congress. At Yalta, officials from the other Allied delegations were alarmed by FDR’s appearance and when FDR gave his speech to Congress he did so from a seated position, apologizing for his “unusual posture” and noted that it was “easier for me not to have to carry about ten pounds of steel around on the bottom of my legs.” The reference to the leg braces he had worn since contracting polio in 1921 was the first time Roosevelt had ever publicly acknowledged his physical disability, and members of Congress now saw what those at the Yalta Conference had seen — FDR was gravely ill.

One person who did not realize how badly the President was ailing was the Vice President, Harry Truman. In 1944, President Roosevelt had dumped his Vice President, Henry Wallace, from the ticket, and seemingly put the decision of his running mate largely in the hands of the Democratic National Convention. In reality, Roosevelt was virtually positive that he would not survive his fourth term and he wasn’t simply choosing a Vice President — he was choosing a successor. Vice President Wallace didn’t cut it as a successor (not to FDR and definitely not to the leaders of the Democratic Party), and Truman steered the Convention towards Truman, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and James F. Byrnes, a former Congressman, former Senator, former Supreme Court Justice, a longtime advisor-without-portfolio to FDR and the ultra-powerful director of the War Mobilization Board.

Roosevelt eventually decided that Truman was the guy he wanted and worked behind-the-scenes to get him nominated at the Convention despite a floor fight by passionate supporters of Wallace who wanted to keep him on the ticket and by Truman’s own reluctance to leave the Senate, a job he loved more than anything he had ever done in his life, for the Vice Presidency, which was powerless and boring and lacked even a hint of influence within Presidential Administrations at that point in history. Once elected and sworn in as Vice President, Truman was no different than any of the previous Vice Presidents — he had nothing to do, wasn’t included in on decisions or discussions of policy, and had almost no personal or professional relationship with President Roosevelt. The only thing of note that Truman did during his Vice Presidency was cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate to help his predecessor in the Vice Presidency, Henry Wallace, get confirmed as Secretary of Commerce. Truman spent most of his days on Capitol Hill, and was at having drinks with a small group of Congressmen and Senator in the office of House Speaker Sam Rayburn on April 12, 1945 when he got a call summoning him to the White House ASAP.

Truman wasn’t sure what was going on, but Allied troops were quickly closing in on Berlin that month from the west and the east, so it could have been just about anything. When he arrived at the White House, it was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who told him, quite bluntly, “Harry, the President is dead.” Despite FDR’s poor health, Truman was stunned. “Is there anything I can do for you?”, the new President asked Eleanor Roosevelt, and the new widow responded, “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”

That wasn’t an exaggeration. World War II was coming to a close in Europe and still raging in the Pacific. Within two-and-a-half weeks of Truman’s succession to the Presidency, Mussolini was captured and killed by his own people in Italy, Berlin fell to the Soviets, Hitler killed himself in his bunker, Germany surrendered, and the war ended in Europe. And, at some point shortly after Truman was sworn into office, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson briefed him on the work being done to build an atomic bomb. Truman — the only President to order a nuclear strike — was completely in the dark about the Manhattan Project and the goal of building a nuclear weapon until after he became President. With all of that to come, everything going in on the world, and the fact that he had suddenly succeeded the longest-serving President in American history — a man whose image was hanging in the houses of millions Americans next to an image of Jesus — in the midst of the bloodiest war in the history of the world is why Truman’s April 12, 1945 was a more difficult day than LBJ’s November 22, 1963. The day after he was sworn into office, Truman said to reporters, “I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”

The other day that I would consider one of the single most difficult days experienced by a President doesn’t require much of an explanation because most of us remember it well. We lived through it and it’s tragically memorable in the same way that older generations remember November 22, 1963 or another day that was very difficult for a President, December 7, 1941 (the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor). No matter how I voted, or how I felt about George W. Bush when it came to other issues and his Presidency overall, I will never forget his poise during the days after September 11, 2001, which was without a doubt one of the toughest days any President has ever experienced. He was a bit unsteady on the day of the attacks, at least in his statements early in the day, but we were all unsteady. We didn’t know what the hell was going on, and the President was in the frustrating position of not being allowed by the Secret Service to return to Washington, D.C. until later in the evening. He was removed from the situation, forced to remain in the air aboard Air Force One as it flew across the country, protected by fighter jets, to a secure location in Nebraska. President Bush began to find his footing with his address to the nation that night from the Oval Office once he finally ordered to be taken home to Washington, and he was fantastic throughout the rest of that week, especially at the National Prayer Service and when he visited with the family members of victims and with rescue workers at Ground Zero.

Knowing how difficult 9/11 was for regular Americans like me, far removed from the horror in Manhattan, in Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon, I can’t imagine how hard that day was to the actual victims of the attacks, or those people connected to the victims. And it’s impossible to understand how hard September 11, 2001 was for the President of the United States, from the moment Andy Card whispered the news to him in that classroom in Sarasota, Florida until he finally went to sleep that night after a day of attacks on the country unlike any that any other President has ever faced. Like I said at the beginning of this answer (approximately 90,000 words ago), this is a great question because it has so many possible answers and opens up a very interesting debate. But in my opinion, no President had a more difficult single day than George W. Bush on September 11, 2001.

GEORGE W. BUSH

43rd President of the United States (2001-2009)

Full Name: George Walker Bush
Born: July 6, 1946, Grace-New Haven Hospital, New Haven, Connecticut
Political Party: Republican
State Represented: Texas
Term: January 20, 2001-January 20, 2009
Age at Inauguration: 54 years, 198 days
Administration: 54th and 55th
Congresses: 107th, 108th, 109th, and 110th
Vice President: Richard Bruce “Dick” Cheney (2001-2009)
Died:
Age at Death:
Buried: (Bush has announced plans to be buried at Texas State Cemetery, Austin, Texas)

2012 Dead Presidents Ranking: 36 of 43 [↔]

It is very difficult to rank recent Presidents.  In most surveys, recent Presidents are usually ranked way too high or way too low, and their positioning shifts quite a bit in the decade after they leave office.  Today, George W. Bush’s Administration is not well-regarded by most Americans, yet he is undoubtedly more popular than he was during the 2008 campaign or even in the months after he retired to Dallas. The unpopular War in Iraq, the seemingly endless Afghanistan War, and the decimated economy that Bush 43 passed on to his successor continues to reflect badly on Bush and hurt his legacy.  That may change as history unfolds and I wouldn’t hesitate to bet that Bush rises in the rankings over the next few years, but right now, the eight years of the Bush Administration are still raw and still painful.

PREVIOUS RANKINGS:
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine:  Not Ranked
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine:  Not Ranked
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine:  Not Ranked
1990: Siena Institute:  Not Ranked
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine:  Not Ranked
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians:  Not Ranked
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll:  Not Ranked
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership:  19 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians:  36 of 42
2010: Siena Institute:  39 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre:  31 of 40

Jimmy [Carter] was terrible to George, so I didn’t ever appreciate that. You don’t criticize a successor and other Presidents. I wouldn’t and he did. He got very personal about George, and I never appreciated that.

George H.W. Bush, on Jimmy Carter’s comments about George W. Bush, Esquire Magazine, September 20, 2010.

In May 2007, Carter said of Bush 43, “I think as far as the adverse impact on the nation and around the world, this Administration has been the worst in history.”

Asker nickdivers Asks:
Hi Anthony. So with Iraq quickly falling apart, some news outlets have mentioned that W Bush is staying silent because he swore not to criticize his predecessor. However, I just saw Cheney's op-ed in the WSJ. How common are both responses? Do you personally feel that Cheney has a good point regarding Obama's policies?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

George W. Bush has said from the beginning that he would never criticize his successor.  Most recent Presidents have almost turned that into a tradition.  Bush’s father was adamant about not criticizing Bill Clinton and Bush 43 has followed his lead.  Clinton, for the most part, has done the same.  Reagan didn’t speak out about any of his successors, either, but his Alzheimer’s Disease limited his public exposure pretty early into his retirement.  Ford rarely criticized his successors — the most candid quotes from Ford about his successors, revealed in conversations with author Thomas DeFrank, were embargoed until after his death. 

Jimmy Carter is the only recent President who didn’t do that, and it hasn’t sat well with his successors.  Bush 41 has said that he was very angry at some of the things Carter said about Bush 43, and Clinton and Carter have never had a close relationship.  When all of the living Presidents gather together at an event, you can tell that Carter is the odd man out — he’s not well-liked, while the other living Presidents are all pretty close personally.

I think that it’s pretty classy of former Presidents not so criticize their successors.  They recognize how difficult the job of President of the United States is, and once they’ve held the office, most seem to want to be supportive of their successors. 

Vice Presidents and Vice Presidential candidates always tend to be the hatchet men in campaigns and during Administrations.  But Cheney has been vicious about Obama almost since the day he left office.  I mean, there’s nothing that says he can’t do that, but I have more respect for the way George W.  Bush has handled his retirement.  There’s a level of statesmanship that I think is important for our leaders (and former leaders), and Cheney would rather be an attack dog.  I don’t remember exactly where I read it, but I recall reading that Bush has actually been disappointed with some of Cheney’s comments since leaving office, and I think that all stems from Bush’s belief that they had their shot, they can’t change the way historians will interpret what they did, and they should remain above the fray.  Like I said, there’s no right or wrong way to go about it, but I have more respect for Bush’s way.

In your opinion, what do you think history is gonna say about George W. Bush's presidency (ala good or bad) and what will be his legacy outside of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

His legacy will always be dominated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  There’s no getting around it — just like it’s almost impossible to judge Nixon without having it clouded by Watergate.  Bush is going to get high marks for the immediate response to 9/11, but then we quickly come to the fact that he threw away nearly worldwide support for the United States in 9/11’s aftermath by invading Iraq.  Getting involved in Afghanistan made sense, but now, it’s the longest war in American history and it’s been bungled by two Presidents.  And that was the “good” war.  Iraq was wrong from the beginning, it was inherited by Bush’s successor, and as Obama nears the end of his term, it’s falling apart again.  Then there’s the economic crisis, which wasn’t fully Bush’s fault, but the wars had a big impact on our economy and will for decades to come as veterans get older and need more help.  Obama inherited a mess, and that’s going to be a big part of Bush’s legacy.  The best thing that Bush did in eight years was PEPFAR — that’s the most positive thing that happened in his Presidency.

I always thought Bush was a good politician. I never thought he was dumb. There’s a difference between not knowing certain things and being dumb. But I never bought that. Not ever, not for a minute. I never believed it…[Bush has] an intuitive intelligence…[Bush’s political adversaries must] oppose what he is doing rather than ridicule him. I loved it when the Right ridiculed me. When you ridicule someone, you underestimate them.
Bill Clinton, on George W. Bush
One space on the wall was reserved for the President’s most influential predecessor. I chose Lincoln. He’d had the most trying job of any President, preserving the Union. Some asked why I didn’t put Dad’s portrait in that spot. ‘Number forty-one hangs in my heart,’ I said. ‘Sixteen is on the wall.’
George W. Bush, on the reason he hung a portrait of Abraham Lincoln in the Oval Office instead of a portrait of his father, George H.W. Bush, Decision Points, 2010

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.

Over the years there has been a lot of speculation about my relationship with Dad. I suppose that’s natural for the first father-and-son Presidents in 172 years. The simple truth is that I adore him. Throughout my life I have respected him, admired him, and been grateful for his love. There is an infamous story about me driving home late one night, running over the neighbor’s trash can, and then smarting off to Dad. When some people picture that scene, they envision two Presidents locked in some epic psychological showdown. In reality, I was a boozy kid, and he was an understandably irritated father. We didn’t think much about it until it came up in the newspapers twenty years later.
George W. Bush, on the perception and reality of his relationship with his father, George H.W. Bush, Decision Points, 2010

image

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 90th 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 crew members 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,
Pop

•••

As he celebrates his 90th 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. Liaison in China. CIA Director. Vice President of the United States under Ronald Reagan. President of the United States (“41”). Father of one Governor and President (“43”) and another Governor who could very well become President “45”.

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."

George W. Bush did me one of the great favors of my life. He asked me not once, but twice, to work with his father. We took seven trips together. This man who’d I’d always liked and respected and run against…I literally came to love this man and I realized all over again how much energy we waste fighting with each other over things that don’t matter…He can virtually do no wrong in my eyes, even though every five years he makes me look like a wimp by insisting on continuing to jump out of airplanes.
Bill Clinton, on his close post-Presidential relationship with George H.W. Bush, at a gala honoring Bush at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., March 21, 2011
I am the first son of George and Barbara Bush. My father wore the uniform in World War II, married his sweetheart as soon as he came home, and quickly started a new family. The story was common to many young couples of their generation. Yet there was always something extraordinary about George H.W. Bush. Years later, millions of Americans would learn Dad’s story. But from the beginning, I knew it by heart…I would bug him to tell stories from the war. He refused to brag. But Mother would. She adored him, and so did I. As I got older, there would be others I looked up to. But the truth is that I never had to search for a role model — I was the son of George Bush.
George W. Bush, on his father, George H.W. Bush, Decision Points, 2010
We lost Ronald Reagan only days ago, but we have missed him for a long time. We have missed his kindly presence, that reassuring voice, and the happy ending we had wished for him. It has been ten years since he said his own farewell; yet it is still sad and hard to let him go. Ronald Reagan belongs to the ages now, but we preferred it when he belonged to us…And we look to that fine day when we will see him again, all weariness gone, clear of mind, strong and sure, smiling again, and the sorrow of his parting gone forever.
George W. Bush, eulogizing Ronald Reagan and expressing regret that the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease had effectively ended Reagan’s public life a decade before he actually died, at Reagan’s State Funeral, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., June 11, 2004