The pragmatic president
Long life of public service brought Bush to Va. often
Virginia coursed through George H.W. Bush’s long life of public service, from his World War II flight training in Virginia Beach, to his service as CIA director at Langley, to his dozens of speaking engagements in the state, boosting GOP political campaigns, the military and charities.
As the nation’s 41st president, Bush presided over an education summit in September 1989 that drew the nation’s governors to the University of Virginia.
Bush also left an indelible image during an October 1992 presidential
debate at the University of Richmond. As Bush faced off with Democrat Bill Clinton and independent H. Ross Perot, photographers captured Bush glancing at his watch. Fairly or unfairly, it gave some viewers the impression that the president was eager for the debate to end.
Bush, who died Friday night in Houston at the age of 94, also had strong personal ties to Richmond. His son Marvin and his granddaughter Jenna Bush Hager married Richmonders.
Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the U.S. and Virginia flags flying over the state Capitol and throughout the state to be at half-staff for 30 days in Bush’s memory.
“President George H.W. Bush led a remarkable life, marked by his devotion to his beloved wife Barbara, commitment to public service, and unwavering decency to others,” Northam said in a statement. “May we all take a page from his book.”
In statements on Saturday, Virginia’s Democratic U.S. senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, called Bush “a model of dignity” in public service and “a class act.”
Kaine said: “Whether flying 58 combat missions in World War II, signing the Americans with Disabilities Act, or bringing the Cold War to a peaceful end, he carried his accomplishments with unparalleled humility. He lived a long life devoted to his country, dying old and full of days.”
Warner said: “George H.W. Bush was a class act — a person of tremendous strength and moral character who exemplified the values of public service. There can be no question that his highest commitment was always to our country and to our values — to justice, freedom, and the rights of human beings everywhere.”
Among Bush’s many political appearances in Virginia was a 1973 address to Virginia’s GOP state convention. Bush, then chairman of the Republican National Committee, said the GOP was “alive and well” despite the Watergate scandal.
He would become a popular speaker at Virginia’s colleges and universities.
Bush addressed graduates at Randolph-Macon College in 1976 when he was CIA director. As vice president, he delivered commencement speeches in 1981 at the University of Virginia and in 1985 at Hampden-Sydney College.
As president, he spoke to graduates in 1990 at Liberty University and in 1991 at Hampton University. As an ex-president he addressed College of William & Mary graduates in 1995 and delivered a lecture in 1996 at Virginia Military Institute.
Bush received the Distinguished Flying Cross after Japanese forces shot down his torpedo bomber in the Pacific in September 1944. A year later, Bush and his new wife, Barbara, relocated to Virginia Beach. Bush had been assigned to a torpedo bomber squadron training at Oceana Naval Air Station for an assault on Japan that never came. George and Barbara Bush joined throngs in the streets of Virginia Beach celebrating V-J Day, marking the victory over Japan.
Following his military service, Bush was a recurring presence in Richmond for decades. Richmond’s FitzGerald Bemiss, a former Democratic member of the state Senate, was a lifelong friend of Bush, beginning in their childhood when their families took summer vacations to Maine.
Bush and Bemiss were members of each other’s wedding parties, and in 2011 the former president attended Bemiss’ funeral at Richmond’s St. James’s Episcopal Church.
In October 1988, weeks before Bush was elected president, Bemiss penned a column for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, titled, “My Friend George Bush.”
Bemiss noted that Bush enrolled at Yale once he was discharged from the military. Bush played first base for the Bulldogs’ baseball team, which traveled to Virginia in the spring of 1947 for the University of Richmond’s season opener. Bush and several Yale teammates stayed with Bemiss’ family in Richmond.
“George tripped on the top step of our big spiral staircase and crashed through the railing at the bottom,” Bemiss wrote. “No harm to Bush; considerable harm to the staircase.”
UR beat Yale 8-7, but Bush got two hits in four times at bat. A photograph in The TimesDispatch of April 1, 1947, depicts UR’s Jack Null diving back to first base on a pickoff play, ahead of Bush’s tag.
Bush’s son Marvin graduated from Woodberry Forest, an Episcopal prep school in Orange County, and the University of Virginia. In 1981 he married Margaret Conway Molster of Richmond, a graduate of St. Catherine’s School and U.Va. Two future presidents — Bush and his son George W. Bush — came to Richmond for the wedding at St. James’s Episcopal.
The bride’s mother said the Bushes were down to earth, but she noticed one effect of her daughter marrying the vice president’s youngest son. “We didn’t have very many regrets to the reception.”
In a 1989 story in The TimesDispatch, when the elder
Bush was president, Molster’s younger sister, Jane, attested to his kindness. She related that Bush “was nice to her even when she threw up over the side of his yacht.”
The president’s granddaughter Jenna Bush Hager is married to Henry Hager, a Richmonder who graduated from St. Christopher’s School and U.Va.
Many of Bush’s Virginia appearances seemed to reflect lessons his parents taught him: service, modesty — often reflected in self-deprecating humor — and loyalty.
On April 2, 1981, three days after John Hinckley Jr. tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, Bush kept his commitment to attend a fundraiser in Tysons Corner for J. Marshall Coleman, Virginia’s Republican candidate for governor, who would lose the contest to Democrat Charles S. Robb. It was the vice president’s first stop outside Washington since the assassination attempt.
Bush said it was a “trying week for the country” but that he had visited Reagan in the hospital the day before and that the president looked “swell.”
In 1995, Bush, then a former president, attended a fundraising reception in Richmond for U.S. Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., a longtime friend. Warner was under fire from some Republicans for his refusal to back Oliver L. North, the 1994 GOP nominee for U.S. Senate. Bush showed up even though the state GOP had asked him to stay out of the contest.
Warner would turn back a nomination challenge by James C. Miller III, former budget director in the Reagan administration.
In May 1981, Bush, then vice president, gave the commencement speech at the University of Virginia. He cracked a joke about his son Marvin, who was in the graduating class, along with his future daughter-in-law.
“This is a marvelous day in your lives, one that you’ve been looking forward to for at least four years,” Bush told graduates. “I say ‘at least’ because in the case of our son Marvin, he got so carried away with academic pursuits here at Charlottesville that he somehow managed to compress four years of schooling into five.”
In April 1990, according to
The Associated Press, the president took part in a golf outing on the Marine Corps base at Quantico. Afterward, the president thanked Marine Capt. Dianne Davis of Spotsylvania County for helping him read putts. He signed his score card: “Certified to be almost true. Thanks for the lesson, George Bush.”
In January 2009, both Presidents Bush visited the Norfolk Naval Base, where Bush 43 commissioned the aircraft carrier named for Bush 41.
In an appearance at the Richmond Forum in 1994, the elder Bush said the economy was the key reason that he lost the 1992 presidential election, “the perception that we were still in recession.” He also contrasted two of his appearances in Richmond.
He said of the 1947 baseball game at UR: “I think we won, and that was fun.” (Actually, the Spiders edged Yale.)
As for the 1992 debate at UR, Bush said: “That was not fun.”
“George H.W. Bush was a class act — a person of tremendous strength and moral character who exemplified the values of public service. There can be no question that his highest commitment was always to our country and to our values — to justice, freedom, and the rights of human beings everywhere.” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.
During his single term as president, George H.W. Bush, who died Friday at 94, saw his popularity soar after victory in the Persian Gulf War but sink as economic woes set in.
Former President George H.W. Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush looked on during a ceremony for the George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier on July 8, 2006, in Newport News. Next to the 41st U.S. president was Mike Petters, then the president of Northrop Grumman Newport News.
George H.W. Bush walked past an honor guard as he arrived at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington on April 24, 1996.
George H.W. Bush (left) and his son, then-President George W. Bush, waved after the USS George H.W. Bush was commissioned in Norfolk on Jan. 10, 2009. Tim Kaine (right), then the governor, also attended.