George H.W. Bush: Old school president top in “Class”
George H.W. Bush stood taller than most men throughout seven decades of public service. That built-in surplus of extra inches came in handy at times when used to intimidate his political opponents struggling to stand up to his eye level while left listening below.
And he has always been slender; looking more like a six-foot, two-inch splinter than what you’d expect from a man who woke up to live the impossible dream of occupying the White House and then retiring as the 41st President of the United States.
A dream born out of an idea almost 50 years earlier when Bush was quietly raising a family while making money out of the barren oil fields of Texas but thinking of ways to escape those hot dusty winds swirling above the cactus and sagebrush.
Despite his lifetime of public triumph he never seemed to outrace the aggressive shadows of underestimation that chased him throughout his career. Maybe it was because he was always a thin man, or because he sometimes wore glasses.
“Newsweek” magazine once hinted Bush lacked what it took to serve as America’s Commander-in-Chief when it published the “Fighting the Wimp Factor” cover story just days before he officially kicked off his successful bid for the White House in 1987. He was already nearing the end of his seventh-consecutive year as the nation’s vice president when that story blasted him.
Being shouted out as a 98-pound weakling stung like lemon in the eye for Bush and he didn’t forgive the magazine for years. Just hours after winning the presidency he outlined to the “Newsweek” photographer assigned to the White House, (me), what to expect, or not to expect, for the next four years. “Don’t take it personal, Larry, but never ask for special photographic access of me again!”
He remained true to those words until the day he walked out of the Oval Office for the last time in 1993. I never took it personal and we remain pen pals to this day.
If ever a man was qualified to serve as America’s president it was Bush. Early circumstances were kind to him after being born into old-moneyed New England. His father, Prescott Bush, was a wealthy U.S. Senator from Connecticut and he gave his son the best education money could buy at Andover while he was growing up.
One political opponent used Bush’s well-heeled upbringing in a lighthearted attack against him during a nationally televised speech at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. “Poor George…,” quipped former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, “…he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth…!”
Despite an abundance of fortunes in his childhood he made a very lonely decision after high school and put his birthright of attending prestigious Yale University on hold to instead join the U.S. Navy during World War II. He certainly could have claimed special privilege and watched the war from the university’s ivy covered sidelines but volunteered instead to fly torpedo bombers against the Japanese… a dangerous decision by a teenager.
Bush always found creative ways to generate headlines in Japan. He not only flew 58 combat missions during the war but was rescued from one out of the water by an American submarine, USS Finback, after parachuting from his burning airplane before it disappeared into the Pacific Ocean in 1944.
Bush must have enjoyed the excitement of that experience having parachuted (without the flames racing towards the cockpit) a couple of times over dry land since leaving the White House.
Bush also successfully hit his target in Tokyo in 1992 when he threw up the contents of his stomach into the lap of Japan’s Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa during an official dinner.…!
His resume reads like a list of merit badges: U.S. Congressman from Texas, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Chief U.S. Envoy to China, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and eight-year’s as the U.S. Vice President when Ronald Reagan was president. Each one stands alone as a career highlight.
Any lingering doubts about his qualifications ended this year when he stood with dignified calm in front of an overflowing East Room audience at the White House and received the “Presidential Medal of Freedom” from an appreciative U.S. President Barack Obama in honor of his life’s work.
And “Newsweek” magazine? Well… its economic downfall required a bailout. A moment never celebrated in public by Bush but he would have been rightfully justified after maintaining a stiff upper-lip during that public flogging by “Newsweek” nearly 25 years ago.
Obama praised Bush in that ceremony by saying, “His humility and his decency reflect the very best of the American spirit. Those of you who know him, this is a gentleman.” Obama’s insight wasn’t news to anyone who ever spent time with Bush. His confident yet, gentle presence still translates into the definition of his true character… refined “class.”
He always was considerate while president and never packed for vacations away from the White House without first thinking about the impact on those individuals who followed him. An act of genuine concern for members of his traveling press corps, his protective Secret Service detail and staff members who wanted to spend time at home with their kids around a holiday. A tradition passed from Ronald Reagan to him, and then handed down again to his own son, George W. Bush.
Bush also opened up his vacation home on the water in Kennebunkport, Maine, to the White House press and their families for a press party one day each summer. He greeted his guests at the end of the long driveway of his private retreat, Walker’s Point, and explained where to find the tennis courts, hot hamburgers, or the dock leading out to his speedboat, “Fidelity”, for rides on the ocean… and all of that with one simple condition: “don’t step on Barbara’s flowers…” he warned.
One year my teenage son, Mike, challenged Bush to a tennis match. He politely declined but invited Mike into the house to get the rackets kept in the sports room. Mike later explained to curious reporters that the president was inside crawling on his hands, and knees, looking for the tennis balls mixed with the sports gear and mumbling he couldn’t find anything since “Barbara cleaned this room.”
Bush also knew the first name of the news photographers assigned to the White House and affectionately called them his “photo dogs.” Bush liked them so much he invited them to a private barbecue on the South Lawn of the White House early in the Administration; 40 familiar faces standing around sharing hot dogs, ice cream, and playing horseshoes against the President of the United States a few steps from the Oval Office.
Bush loved horseshoes so much that on one Sunday morning he made an early telephone call to one of his favorite “photo dogs,” Doug Mills, and asked him to put together a competitive team of photographers to play against his team later that day. The match continued late into the day. Most of Bush’s teammates slowly disappeared into the afternoon sun leaving the president short-handed against the “photo dogs.” Bush turned to the White House butlers dressed in their servers outfits and ordered them to drop their trays and join his team.