On Wednesday the 28th of May, 1986, then Vice President George H.W. Bush gave the commencement address at the US Air Force Academy. The speech itself was unremarkable. It was the man himself that stood out to me. He was very gracious. While most of my fellow newly minted lieutenants stiffly saluted and shook his hand (he shook every one of the 954 hands that morning) I couldn’t help but notice his tie. I thanked him for making the trip to speak with us and told him I liked his tie. He perked up and said, “Do you really like it? I picked it out myself!”
Then in the Spring of 1991 President George H.W. Bush flew to Shaw Air Force Base to address the Airmen of the 363rd Tactical Fighter Wing and 9th Air Force Headquarters after we redeployed from 8 months on the Arabian Peninsula after planning and fighting Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi military in Desert Storm. There was no grand rhetoric about America’s greatness or strength. This was about the people who planned flew and fought the war, largely an air war. He made it about the individual service members and not about himself and his administration. He put his arms around Spike Thomas and Neck Dotson and kidded with them, fighter pilot to fellow fighter pilots. It was all smiles that day.
Then flash forward to 2004 and I am Bob Deans’ guest at the White House Correspondents Dinner. I’m in my mess dress in the private reception back stage when pres George W. Bush (43) walks in. You might have seen this scene yourself where most everyone in the room immediately rushes over to mob the President. I stayed to the other side of the room and spoke with Condi Rice and Laura Bush.
Bob Deans came and said “you need to work your way over to introduce yourself.” I told him it was inappropriate for a uniformed officer to fight through a crowd to introduce himself to the President. It is unseemly. He agreed and went himself to grab the President and tell him there was someone he needed to meet. Bob escorts the President over while the gathered intelligentsia looks down their noses to see who this officer was that the head of the White House Correspondents Association was introducing the the President. We greeted and I told the President that his father spoke to my graduating class at the Academy and shook my hand. 43 says, “May 1986. I was on that trip with him. Did you just shake hands or did you say anything to him?” I related the story of the tie, and 43 laughed out loud and exclaimed, “That’s how I know you’re telling the truth. He did pick out his own tie that day and was so proud of himself for it!”
I tell you this story only because both were flawed men (we all are), but both had and have a sense of propriety and dignity that is sorely lacking in leaders today, especially in the White House now. 41 was ambitious and he lost a lot of political races en route to the White House. Nobody then would have called him a grand visionary. But he stuck with it and served. It was always about the country, not him. Service before self.
He valued expertise and prudence. How refreshing that would be today. I heard him say that aside from incoming nuclear missiles, he couldn’t think of anything he would have to decide that couldn’t benefit from thinking it over after a good night’s sleep. He realized it is better to be right than first.
“His life code was: ‘Tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Be strong. Do your best. Try hard. Forgive. Stay the course,’ ” Bush biographer Jon Meacham said in his eulogy. “And that was, and is, the most American of creeds.” Former Senator Alan Simpson said of the elder Bush: “Those who travel the high road of humility in Washington, D.C., are not bothered by heavy traffic,” adding later, “Hatred corrodes the container it’s carried in.”
His son, Bush 43, was more flawed on a policy level and in his choices of who he trusted in his circle. But he was always respectful and, in his own way, prudent like his father. A truly decent man. He learned from watching his dad and knew when to be calm and when to openly cry. “He showed me what it means to be a president who serves with integrity, leads with courage and acts with love in his heart for the citizens of our country,” 43 said of 41.
Dirk Stikker, former Dutch Ambassador to the US and a founder of NATO, wrote a very good book called Men of Responsibility. We need more of them in in our government and military today. Sorely.