George W. Bush, at the LBJ Library’s Civil Rights Summit, April 10, 2014
Man, I have to admit that I sure am enjoying George W. Bush more-and-more as a former President — and not just because he is no longer President.
In 1970, a 24-year-old man pulled up to the White House in his car — a purple Gremlin. He was there to take the daughter of President Richard Nixon, out on a date. It can be intimidating to pick up any date and meet the girl’s father. It must be exceptionally nerve-wracking when your date’s father happens to be the most powerful man in the world.
It was the young man’s father who attempted to play matchmaker between his son and President Nixon’s eldest daughter, but there was no real chemistry between the nervous young man and Tricia Nixon. Later, he would remember simply, “We went to dinner. It wasn’t a very long date.”
Three decades later, Tricia Nixon’s date would move into the White House himself and understand the feeling of being President and father to two attractive young women.
Tricia Nixon’s date that night was George W. Bush.
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 (BOOK•KINDLE), 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.
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).
Diplomacy in the [George W.] Bush Administration is, ‘Alright, you fuckers, do what we say.’”
Richard Armitage, George W. Bush’s Deputy Secretary of State
It is always better to lowball these things. If you perform, people are surprised. I really enjoy it when somebody says, ‘That son-of-a-bitch just got out a coherent sentence’.”
George W. Bush, on lowering expectations, to an Army General during a conference call on the Iraq War
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.
Today, we remember.
We remember where we were when we heard about the first plane hitting the tower. We remember what we thought as the news just began to trickle in. We remember our horror as we watched the second plane hit the other tower. We remember the evacuations — people running out of our monuments, our centers of government and finance, and spilling out on to the streets of our nation’s capital. We remember the dust and debris chasing thousands of New Yorkers through the streets of our most iconic city. We remember the smoke rising from the Pentagon. We remember that impact site in Pennsylvania. We remember watching the towers fall.
We remember the fear, the chaos, the sadness, and the feeling of not knowing what was happening or when it would end. We remember a feeling that Americans were not used to experiencing up to September 11, 2001: helplessness — the feeling of being attacked. We remember that the weather was perfect throughout almost the entire country that morning. We remember that we don’t remember what it felt like on September 10th.
Do you remember pointing fingers? Do you remember placing blame? Do you remember partisanship? I remember patriotism. I remember flags and candles and donating water and giving blood and having a new appreciation for police officers and firefighters. I remember that I wasn’t a Democrat or a Republican. I remember that I was an American. I remember that we were all Americans. I remember that we cared a little bit more about each other for at least a couple of weeks.
When Democrat Lyndon Johnson was the Senate Majority Leader and Republican Dwight Eisenhower was President of the United States, LBJ — one of the most intense, passionate political animals in our history — never attacked President Eisenhower. It wasn’t because LBJ agreed with Eisenhower’s policies. It wasn’t because LBJ was scared. It was because, as LBJ explained in 1953 in a comment that has an unfortunately haunting connection to 9/11, “If you’re in an airplane, and you’re flying somewhere, you don’t run up to the cockpit and attack the pilot. Mr. Eisenhower is the only President we’ve got.”
The only President we’ve got.
We all want to head in the same direction. We all want to move forward. We all want to progress and be happy and healthy and taken care of. Why does partisan politics trump nationalism? As World War I and World War II approached and the world realized that we are clearly connected on a global level, the people who seemed the most out-of-touch — the people who were wrong — were the isolationists. In both of those great wars, the isolationists were proven wrong. Yet, in the span of our grandparents’ lives, we have regressed to the point where most Americans have become individual isolationists — not isolationism on a national level, but on a personal level. We’ve tried to disconnect from the people in our own country. Don’t you remember how powerful it felt after 9/11 to be united? Don’t you remember how we helped each other in so many different ways?
I guess I could try to be cynical. It’s my natural state anyway. I guess I could remember the look on President George W. Bush’s face when his Chief of Staff, Andrew Card, whispered news of the attacks in the President’s ear as he sat in a Florida classroom. I guess I could remember My Pet Goat, and the fact that Bush didn’t get up, sprint from the room, and change out of his Clark Kent clothes into the Superman suit. I guess I could remember Air Force One zig-zagging across the country, the only flight in the air besides military escorts and combat air patrols over our major cities. I guess I could remember the surveillance videos of the well-dressed hijackers walking through the airport terminals that morning before they turned our planes into weapons. I guess I could remember that the passengers of Flight 93 didn’t actually get through the cockpit door and force the plane to crash into Pennsylvania. I guess I could remember our government’s alphabet agencies — the FBI, CIA, NSA, and everyone else listening in on our world — being unable to work together and stop this attack from happening in the first place. I guess I could choose to remember those things, but that doesn’t make me feel better. It doesn’t make 9/11 anything but a success to those who tried to frighten and frustrate and intimidate us through terrorism.
This is what I choose to remember:
I remember that the passengers of Flight 93 tried. I remember that their plane didn’t make it to Washington, and even if they didn’t get into the cockpit and crash the plane into that meadow in Pennsylvania themselves, they certainly fought back and forced the hijackers to abort the mission that they had planned. That plane didn’t crash into the White House or the Capitol, and that’s not because the hijackers got lost.
I remember driving to the wedding rehearsal for two of my best friends on the Friday after the attacks, feeling bad that they were getting married in the shadow of 9/11. I remember being amazed at thousands of people in the streets of Sacramento — thousands of miles away from any of the attack sites — holding a candlelight vigil. I remember that I drove through the silence of these peaceful vigils, with flags and flames and tears all around me, and I thought, “We’re going to be okay.”
I remember George W. Bush — a President I never voted for. I remember his unsteady first comments to the press after the attacks. I remember how he found his footing quickly. I remember him returning to Washington, D.C. that night, against the wishes of his government and his Secret Service. I remember how this President — a President I didn’t agree with, a President I never cast a supportive ballot for or whose campaign I ever donated a cent to, a President whose beliefs were diametrically opposed to almost everything that I believe in — went to Ground Zero and met with the families of those who were dead or missing, and gave them all the time they needed with him.
I remember how that President visited the rescue workers at Ground Zero. I remember, more than anything else, how President Bush climbed on to some of the rubble of the fallen towers, grabbed a bullhorn and began to speak, but was interrupted by the workers yelling, “We can’t hear you!”
I remember that the President — the only President we had at the time — shouted to these exhausted, weary, heroic rescuers, “Well, I can hear you! And the people who knocked these buildings down are gonna hear from all of us soon!”. I remember that it was genuine, that there was nothing manufactured about that moment, and that, despite all of his faults and deficiencies, George W. Bush said exactly what those people — our people — needed to hear. As the workers chanted, “USA! USA! USA!”, I remember thinking — I didn’t vote for him and I won’t vote for him in 2004, but that’s my President and I am proud of him.
As we look back, we can’t help but think about everything else that has come out of 9/11 — the interminable war in Afghanistan, the ridiculous war in Iraq, the humiliating and annoying experience that flying in an airplane has become in this country — but I think about that stuff pretty much every day, and I feel like this should always be a day where we think differently.
So, I’m going to think about those flags and candles and President Bush on top of the rubble of the World Trade Center with a bullhorn. I’m going to think about being an American — just like I was in the weeks following 9/11 — rather than being a Democrat or Republican, Liberal or Conservative, Believer or Non-Believer, Straight or Gay, White or Black or Hispanic or Asian, or any other label that we place on ourselves to show that we’re different or more than just human.
I’m going to remember thinking, “That’s my President”, as he spoke to the rescue workers, just as I did a few weeks later when President Bush went to Yankee Stadium for Game 3 of the World Series, strapped on a bulky bulletproof vest under his FDNY sweatshirt, walked to the pitcher’s mound, and with millions of Americans watching on television, with thousands of rabid New Yorkers watching in the stands, and with Derek Jeter’s words (“Don’t bounce it or they’ll boo you.”) rattling around in his head, threw a perfect strike.
I’ll remember thinking, “That’s my President”, about a guy I never voted for and didn’t agree with, and I’ll hope that you do that when the guy you didn’t vote for and didn’t agree with says the right words, does the right things, and throws a strike — not because you’re a Democrat or a Republican, but because you’re an American and that’s the only President we’ve got.
What do you remember?