george h.w. bush
Jonathan Bush, brother of President George H.W. Bush, dies
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Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to two presidents, dead at 95
A Bush just lost in Texas, the family’s first defeat there in 40 years
Jean Becker was the deputy press secretary for first lady Barbara Bush from 1989 to 1992 and the chief of staff for former President George H. W. Bush after he left the White House in 1993, supervising his offices in Houston, Texas, and Kennebunkport, Maine. She’s now written a book, “The Man I Knew,” about her time with the couple, who both passed away in 2018. In this excerpt, Becker reveals how the Bushes struggled to adapt to their post-White House life.
One night in 2012, Margaret Tutwiler — a former ambassador and top aide to former secretary of state James Baker — called me at home to ask if I knew anything about President Bush’s longtime friend, Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, being assassinated by the Syrians. There were rumors everywhere, but she could not confirm. She asked if I could “check my sources.”
What she really wanted was for me to call the CIA, which maintained a special relationship with President Bush. After all, he once was the top boss there, and CIA headquarters in McLean, Va., is named the George Bush Center for Intelligence.
So I called, and my point of contact told me they were aware of the rumors; they were trying to confirm; they had “boots on the ground,” checking sources.
By noon the next day we had heard nothing. Then Margaret called to update me that the French press was reporting that Prince Bandar had indeed been assassinated.
This was tough news to break to President Bush. Prince Bandar had been the Saudi ambassador to the United States from 1985 until 2003. They were very close, and I knew President Bush would take this news hard.
We were sitting outside President Bush’s office in Kennebunkport, enjoying the weather and going over some work, when I told him. I explained that the CIA had not yet confirmed that Bandar was dead but feared it was true, since no one had seen or heard from Bandar in months.
“Did you think about calling him?” he asked me.
The answer would be NO. It never occurred to me to call and ask Bandar if he was dead or alive.
“Well, let’s get him on the phone.”
I hollered through an open window to his aide, Jim Appleby, and asked him to get Bandar on the phone. Jim leaned out the window and mouthed to me, “Haven’t you told him?!”
“Yes, I told him,” I assured Jim. “Ring his cell phone.”
A few minutes later an incredulous Jim leaned out the window again, saying, “Prince Bandar on line one.”
President Bush picked up the phone and literally asked his friend, “Hey, Bandar, dead or alive? Everyone here thinks you are dead.” At some point, he covered the phone’s mouthpiece and whispered to me, “He’s alive!”
Yes, I got that.
As it turns out, Bandar knew the Syrians were trying to kill him, so he was in hiding but safe.
When the call was over, President Bush rang his friends James Baker and Brent Scowcroft and assured them Bandar was alive. Then he turned to me and said, “See, Jean, that’s the best way to figure these things out. If you aren’t sure if someone is dead or alive, call them. And if they answer, they are alive.”
And with that he triumphantly drove off on his golf cart, on his way to the house for lunch. His work here was done.
It was a long way from where he had been when he first left office in 1993.
George H. W. Bush once said to a friend who was bemoaning the fact he had been fired: “I know how you feel. I was fired by the American people. It hurt.”
Then he said, “It will be okay.”
As it turned out for the 41st president of the United States, it really was okay, because he made it so.
Not that it was easy.
President Bush could never really describe how it felt to go, literally overnight, from being the most important and powerful person in the world to a private citizen. You lose not only your power, but also your house, your plane, and a large, devoted staff. How does it feel when the last strains of “Hail to the Chief ” fade away?
The first word that comes to mind is “devastating.”
For President Bush, it did not help that in early 1991, after his successful campaign to free Kuwait from Iraq, his approval ratings hit 91 percent, unheard of for a sitting president. So what happened after Operation Desert Storm ended? How did he lose his reelection bid to Bill Clinton, the governor of Arkansas, who at the beginning of the 1992 campaign wasn’t even a Democratic front-runner?
Depending on whom you ask, the reasons range from the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot; the eleventh-hour Iran-Contra indictments; his breaking the “no new taxes” pledge during the 1990 budget crisis; a momentary economic downturn and credit crunch; and the fact that the Republicans had held the White House for twelve years. Many voters felt it was time for a change.
And of course it didn’t help that President Bush had begun 1992 with the unfortunate incident of throwing up on the prime minister of Japan during a state visit. As it turns out, he had the stomach flu and had tried to power through the dinner. Unfortunately, Mother Nature prevailed.
Determined to leave the office he cherished with honor, President Bush put this handwritten and now well-known note in the top drawer of his desk in the Oval Office, telling Clinton, “There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism
you may not think is fair … I am rooting hard for you.”
With that, President Bush returned to Houston and to private life.
It was a rough beginning.
Mrs. Bush loved telling the story of how one day early on she was attempting to make a
vegetarian smoothie for then nine-year-old granddaughter Lauren, when the top came off the blender, and suddenly carrots and tomatoes were dripping from the kitchen ceiling. Somehow that very same day, she managed to knock over a large jar of spaghetti sauce that President Bush had bought on his first of many visits to Sam’s Club.
They ordered pizza.
Before we go on, I have to share this side note about the Bushes’ love affair with Sam’s Club: They became frequent visitors to the store, and despite the fact it was just the two of them, they bought everything in bulk. (There still may be Cheetos left over from those early visits.)
I once went with Mrs. Bush, and as she pushed her flatbed cart around the store, I could tell people were amazed to see her there. I was an eyewitness on that visit to a habit that she developed where she told people who asked if she was Barbara Bush: “No, I am much younger and prettier.”
But the best Sam’s Club story ever, as told by Mrs. Bush, is the day she needed to buy
some copies of her autobiography, “Barbara Bush: A Memoir,” which she had started writing almost as soon as they left the White House and which was published in 1994. A few months after it came out, Mrs. Bush had given away all her copies, so she decided to buy some from Sam’s. There were none in the book section, but the clerk offered to check in the back.
Much to Mrs. Bush’s embarrassment, the clerk got on the loudspeaker and
said, “Mrs. Bush is here and wants to buy her own book. Do we have any left?”
President Bush went to work every day in his new office in Houston, mainly to answer the mail that was coming in at the rate of 700 letters a day. He started planning his presidential library, to be built on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. He and his former national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, started working on their joint book project about foreign policy, “A World Transformed.” (President Bush’s draft of Chapter 1 was 500 pages. General Scowcroft’s version of Chapter 1 was longer. They hired someone to help.)
He and Mrs. Bush were building a house on an empty lot they had owned for many years. For now, they were staying in the house of a friend, just down the street. The neighbors were supportive and excited to welcome the Bushes home, except for one small problem: tourists.
When a busload of them got out and tried to take photos of Mrs. Bush walking their dog, Millie, early one morning, everyone had had enough. Without a lot of coaxing, the Texas legislature passed a new law that said in part: Cities can “regulate and restrict access to streets, avenues, alleys, and boulevards in the municipality on which the dwelling of a former president of the United States is located.” In other words, they put up a gate.
Except for those small hiccups, Mrs. Bush was loving some of their newfound freedom. She gave up her Secret Service detail (they would return a few years later, after 9/11) and was driving for the first time in 12 years. President Bush surprised her that summer with a dark blue Trans Am convertible in Kennebunkport, Maine [where they kept a second home].
She loved it, and said she felt 30 years younger driving around town in what their son Marvin nicknamed the “Batmobile.” There was one small problem: Mrs. Bush couldn’t see out the windows very well. I once was riding with her when we came to a stop sign and stopped. She got out of the car and looked both ways before getting back in and
proceeding. Yes, it was terrifying.
The next year, they replaced the Trans Am with a small Chevrolet convertible with better
visibility. And a few years later, President Bush bought her a Smart Car.
President Bush traveled a great deal, both at home and overseas, beginning to give what he called “white-collar crime” speeches. In other words, he received a speaker’s fee.
But for the most part President Bush was adrift. He just wasn’t sure what to do with himself.
Maybe for that reason, he decided being literally adrift was not a bad thing. He checked off an item on his bucket list when in early February he surprised Mrs. Bush with the news they were going on a cruise. They set sail from Miami aboard the Regal Princess, which President Bush had seen advertised on TV.
They only had to share the ship with 1,600 other passengers, all of whom — according to the Bushes — were just a little surprised to see the recently departed residents of the White House on their Caribbean cruise.
They were so mobbed the captain invited them to eat their meals in his cabin. But it’s possible the stark reality of their new life didn’t really hit home until early one morning when, after working out and taking a steam bath, President Bush walked out of the sauna stark naked to find a fellow cruiser waiting to take his photo. Thankfully, the wannabe photographer asked permission; the former president said politely but firmly, “Hell, yes, I mind if you take my picture. Do you mind waiting?”
President Bush told this story to friend and author George Plimpton, who interviewed President Bush about a year later for a piece for the New York Times Magazine. President Bush admitted to him it had been a tough year: “[I miss] the decision-making, the actual involvement and trying to make things happen. I liked that. I liked it a lot. When it’s gone, it takes a while to get over it. You sit there and there are no decisions; nothing to sign; nobody wants to know what you think on this, or that. It was just a cold-turkey shift.”
Mrs. Bush wrote in her diary that she was amazed how little he
complained, but she knew he was hurting. She especially noted how quiet he was.
All that hurt came pouring out in April when President Bush’s dog Ranger died. He was
devastated. Ranger had been one of the puppies born at the White House to Millie. Initially, they had given Ranger to Marvin, but he thoughtfully gave him back to his dad when he realized how attached he was to Ranger.
President Bush admitted, and Mrs. Bush confirmed, he cried more over Ranger than he did when he lost the election, and more than when his beloved mother died a few weeks after the election.
His theory was that all his collected grief came pouring out when, on top of everything else, he lost his dog. While on the cruise, President Bush, in an attempt to put aside his lost feeling and figure out what was next for him, wrote a memo to himself.
Here are some highlights from the five-page memo:
Memo on Life after the Presidency
I know I must begin to sort things out.
From the Love Boat here’s my latest thinking:
Make some money. BPB has signed up for a lot of money on her book. I want to make enough money so Bar can finish her life without changing her lifestyle. That means so she can keep both K’port and Houston. That she will not be burdened unduly if I have a long illness. I will make that money by giving some speeches …
I am very serious about the grandchild business. I want to see them grow. I want to be
there, take them places, help them, lift them up. I want to help Jeb and George if they go ahead in politics.
Helping others. I want to do something worthwhile. Herbert Hoover, it seems, drove
himself and did a lot. I want to select one or two areas and try to really help.
I want to stay fit and have fun doing that. Golf, but not on the pro‑am name-dropping
circuit. Tennis, for as long as my legs hold out. Hunting and yes plenty of fishing.
Things not to do:
Get in the way of Pres. Clinton.
Be a kingmaker or try to. That means turning down a lot of political invitations. It means trying to avoid joint letter signing with former Presidents on some requests.
Cheapen the Presidency. That means avoiding money grabbing.
Trying to influence how history will treat me … I want to avoid the many interviews,
appearances, etc. to “set the record straight.”
Things not to do … cheapen the Presidency. That means avoiding money grabbing.
art of a memo George H.W. Bush drew up for himself after leaving the White House
But the Bushes were still hurting. Family friend and former staffer Chase Untermeyer remembers visiting and finding the former president really down. When George Plimpton asked him what he did in Maine that first summer, President Bush’s answer was heartbreaking: “I just sat there and watched the tide come in and go out.”
One day, when President Bush’s beloved boat broke off its mooring and crashed on the rocks during a big storm, I jotted down in my sporadically kept journal exactly what he told us: “I lost the election, my mother died, my dog died, and my boat crashed. There’s not much else left that can happen to me this year.”
From the book THE MAN I KNEW
Copyright © 2021 by Jean Becker
Reprinted by permission of Twelve / Hachette Book Group, New York, NY.
All Rights Reserved.
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