George H.W. Bush; Birthday Appreciation

Today is the 85th Birthday of our 41st President, George H. W. Bush. I believe he’s planning to celebrate with a skydive, weather and health permitting. (He did, Hot Air has the video.)

I am late to appreciation of him; I was a liberal Democrat who believed he was a silly man, while he was president. I know better, now.

His son, George W. Bush, the 43rd President, writes of the joy he takes in his father. One of the most striking notions in Dubya’s tribute is that, because of the constancy of his father’s unconditional love, “I feared neither failure nor success.”

I figured it is a good time to dust off this piece, which was originally posted in January of 2008:


Lt. George W. Bush. His wife recently said “he was the most beautiful creature I ever saw”.

Reuben F. Johnson has a terrific piece in the Weekly Standard (Via); it ends up wondering when – between the recent temperamental campaign hijinks of Bill Clinton and the less emotional goings on in Russia – we can again expect to see some maturity on the world stage.

But gets to that question taking a route through the US presidential campaigns of 1992, and writes:

How soon the Clintons forget the despicable lows to which they themselves sank in casting aspersions on the honor of George H.W. Bush (Bush 41) in the 1992 presidential campaign.

During that campaign Clinton’s artful dodging of the Vietnam draft was contrasted with the fact that Bush 41 had served his nation as a naval aviator in the WWII Pacific Theater…The elder Bush flew 58 combat missions by the time he was 20, making him one of the youngest pilots in naval aviation. At about the same age Bill Clinton was writing letters about how he needed to preserve his future political viability, Lieutenant JG George H.W. Bush was dodging anti-aircraft fire in order to reach his assigned targets and drop a load of 500-pound bombs. [Emphasis mine - admin]

In a 1985 article written for Naval Aviation News one of Bush’s squadron mates, Jack Guy, was interviewed and told the author “I can’t say anything but good things about him. In WW II we all felt we could depend on George to do his job. We never had to say, ‘Where’s my wingman?’ because he was always there.”

This article was written three years before Bush became president and seven years before the 1992 campaign. In other words, at a time when there was little attention focused on Bush 41′s war record and quite some time before the controversy about Bill Clinton’s having avoided conscription gave cause for the Clinton campaign to try and denigrate Bush’s own war record to divert attention from the issue of how the Arkansas Governor had stayed out of the draft.

Maybe you remember what happened next. A poison-pen trashing of Bush 41′s wartime exploits appeared a month before the election in the New Republic. Did the Clinton apparatus have a hand in that? You make the call.

That the Clinton machine would cast aspersions on the service record of a true war hero (enlisting in the U.S. Navy on his 18th birthday, Bush earned the Distinguished Flying Cross by age 20) to win an election is unremarkable; the sun also rises. What is remarkable is that, in an age saturated with media, most Americans know little about President George H. W. Bush beyond the goofy caricatures; endless loops of the president taking ill during a diplomatic visit overseas, or of him marveling at a cashier scanner were presented by the press, but there was seldom a balancing profile to counter the punch, and that is a shame.

On 2 September 1944, Bush piloted one of four aircraft from VT-51 that attacked the Japanese installations on Chi Chi Jima. For this mission his crew included Radioman Second Class John Delaney, and Lieutenant Junior Grade William White, USNR, who substituted for Bush’s regular gunner. …Bush’s aircraft was hit and his engine caught on fire. He completed his attack and released the bombs over his target scoring several damaging hits. With his engine on fire, Bush flew several miles from the island, where he and one other crew member on the TBM Avenger bailed out of the aircraft. However, the other man’s chute did not open and he fell to his death. It was never determined which man bailed out with Bush. Both Delaney and White were killed in action. –Naval Historical Center

George H. W. Bush is 84 years old, now. Better to appreciate a man while he’s still alive, than when it’s too late. Johnson’s article triggered in me a desire to re-familiarize myself with what little I know (and appreciate) about this very good man. I liked this interview in which he talks of his admiration for Abraham Lincoln, his strong attachment to his family, the death of his daughter, Robin, at age 4. One quote:

Q: If you had a tip to share with young people, what would that be?

George H.W. Bush: …I’d have to say, don’t neglect your family. Politics is important, sitting at the head table is glamorous. Traveling around the world, trying to do something for world peace was wonderful. But…It’s family, and it’s faith, and it’s friends, and it’s not the glamor of the Presidency, or the wonder of going to receive the Nobel Prize. All those are important, of course. But maybe it’s just that I’m 71 years old now. It’s family, and it’s faith, and it’s friends. I would tell them that. Don’t forget that. In your brilliance, don’t turn your back on your friends. Don’t think you’re entitled to something, because you’re smarter than the next guy.

In 1999 President Bush published a collection of his letters entitled, All the Best, George Bush, and it is a wonderful biographical sharing of a man; his letters begin in 1941, with letters to his family from Naval Aviation Pre-Flight School and end in 1998, with a profound and loving letter written to his children. In reading them you see a man in full, growing from an enthusiastic, patriotic and idealistic young flyboy, gaining experience and wisdom, enjoying political successes and failures and suffering grievous loss – his letters concerning the death of his daughter, and his advice to his sons made me weep – this is no caricature, nor a burnished hagiography that skips over the messy parts. The president allows the reader to see him, warts-and-all, and it is quite remarkable. A few excerpts:

Sept 3, 1944: I will have to skip all the details of the attack as they would not pass the censorship but the fact remains that we got hit…There was no sign of Del or Ted anywhere around. I looked as I floated down and afterwards kept my eye open from the raft, but to no avail. The fact that our planes didn’t seem to be searching anymore showed me pretty clearly that they had not gotten out. I’m afraid I was pretty much of a sissy about it cause I sat in my raft and sobbed for a while. It bothers me so very much. I did tell them and when I bailed out I felt that they must have gone, and yet now I fell so terribly responsible for their fate, oh, so much right now.

Summer 1958: (After the death of his and Barbara’s daughter) There is about our house a need. The running, pulsating restlessness of the four boys as they struggle to learn and grow; the world embraces them…all this wonder needs a counter-part. We need some starched crisp frocks to go with all our torn-kneed blue jeans and helmets. We need some soft blonde hair to off-set those crew cuts. We need a doll house to stand firm against our forts and rackets and thousand baseball cards…we need a legitimate Christmas angel – one who doesn’t have cuffs beneath the dress.

We need someone who is afraid of frogs.
We need someone to cry when I get mad – not argue.
We need a little one who can kiss without leaving eggs or jam or gum.
We need a girl…

To George & Jeb, 1998: Do not worry when you see the stories that compare you favorably to a Dad for whom English was a second language and for whom the word destiny meant nothing…I am content with how historians will judge my administration – even on the economy. I hope and think they will say we helped change the world in a positive sense…
Nothing that crowd can ever say or those journalists can ever write will diminish my pride in you both, so worry not. Those comparisons are inevitable and they will inevitably be hurtful to all of us, but not hurtful enough to dividek, not hurtful enough to really mean anything.

After reading his book in 2002, I wrote to President Bush telling him how much I admired the noble husband, father and public servant I met within the pages, and thanking him for sharing them, and for serving all of us so faithfully. I think what I was really thanking him for was his authenticity – something so sorely lacking in our culture, these days. I’m a nobody, but he actually responded with a lovely thank you (!) joking that he and “Barbara” were glad to still be here, and asking me to pray for his son, which I gladly did, and do.

Sometimes, when I really have nothing else to think about, I imagine what sort of man and president Bill Clinton would have been, had he had such a constant and loving father.

Thanks, President Bush, for everything. All the best, sir!

UPDATED: Newsbusters is, co-incidentally, remembering a Bush moment, this one with Dan Rather.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Todd

    Interesting spin on a man who, yes, should be honored for his service and sacrifice to his country. But I don’t remember the ’92 election to have been a smear against Mr Bush so much as a fairly vigorous three-way tussle. Politics was rough and dirty way back then, even, and Mr Perot took a break as I recall when things got a bit hot for him.

    While I didn’t vote for the man, I thought the attacks on Mr Kerry’s equally honorable war record were more vigorous and more reprehensible than what is remembered about Mr Bush.

    Besmirching a military record in a political campaign isn’t about honor and duty. The GOP has shown itself superior in mudslinging when the purpose is to win an election, and not to wave a flag.

  • Mutnodjmet

    A beautiful post, and a wonderful biographical summary. Thanks for sharing what you learned, especially the part about Pauline’s sad death.

  • leg

    I’ve always believed GB to be an honorable man. Your post re-affirms this belief. Thanks. His words re losing his daughter so remind me of what I had to learn when raising daughters (I came from an all-boy family). It was a rocky, wonderful experience that GB encapsulates beautifully.

    Todd: one word – blinders. Mudslinging is engaged by all political parties. Maturity can be defined by recognizing one’s faults, then doing something about it. You may think the Democrats throw less mud, but hopefully you recognize that they do throw mud. Work to keep it minimized and you will be a real man. In return, I promise I’ll continue to do my part with the Republicans because I detest mudslinging.

  • Gayle Miller

    Claiming wartime heroism falsely is also despicable. And John Kerry’s wartime service was NOT in any way on a par with George H.W. Bush’s. Mr. Kerry spent precisely 4 months in Vietnam and none of his “wounds” required more than a bandaid. As a Vietnam War widow, I found his claim to be some kind of war hero offensive and despicable. So no, I don’t agree with your view on that at all. George H.W. Bush is a fine man who raised a remarkable and gifted family. Should anyone want to know how a family can become remarkable the answer is easy – have a parent who loves unconditionally – much in the way that Bush 41 loved his children!

  • Michael

    I’ve been reading this blog for a longtime, and I’ve never felt compelled to write a reply until this one. I was born in 1982, and one of my earliest memories is of my mother crying when Ronald Reagen left office. So te first president I actually remember anything of is George Bush, even though I had little conception of politics at the time. What i remember most about him specifically is that he always seemed like my grandfather. A bit stern, but very loving and warm at the same time. I, and the rest of my family, was very sad when he lost the election in 1992 (although really, if you work under the assumption that the Perot voters would’ve voted for the conservative candidate Buush, rather than the liberal Clinton, you get a very different election outcome).

    As an aside, I’ve encountered in some conservative circles an antipathy to George Bush. I don’t really understand it, so couldn’t explain other than some conservatives seem to think that he was an unworthy successor to Reagen. I think it’s a lot of baloney and they’re just angry that he didn’t win the election. Really, their ire should be pointed at Perot.

    Just my opinion but thank you for this tribute to a wonderful man.

  • Catherine

    John Kerry betrayed his comrades in arms by testifying falsely against them.

    He is a shame to the military, and they know it.

  • Dee


    Kerry brought any and all mudslinging upon himself because of how he personally betrayed, besmirched and dishonored his fellow soldiers in congressional hearings. You can’t get any more “superior in mudslinging” than that.

  • Todd

    “Work to keep it minimized and you will be a real man.”

    If I were a Democrat, I might be inclined to do so. You seem to assume my political affiliation when I’ve given none at all.

    Real men honor service freely given and sacrifices rendered. I have no problem honoring a man I did not vote for, but nonetheless respect as a public servant. I simply state that Mr Bush’s war record was clear, and not a point of serious controversy in the 1992 election.

    As for Mr Kerry, I’ve yet to see a serious argument against his service. It would be honorable for all concerned to just accept military service in a positive light for any person, notwithstanding individual acts of a gravely sinful or illegal nature.

  • Catherine

    Todd evades the issue.

    Not a Democrat, eh? I bet you vote Democrat, however, don’t you?

    The “real argument” is about Kerry’s betrayal of his brothers in arms. And that’s “sinful”.

  • Todd

    Swing and a miss, my friends.

    “I bet you vote Democrat, however, don’t you?”

    I have voted for candidates Democratic, GOP, and third party. I have no party loyalty.

    Mr Kerry’s betrayal? You’re going to need something more than being outspoken and protesting against an unjust war. If you have something that proves he turned over his brothers in arms to the adversaries in Vietnam, bring it. Otherwise, this thread, starting with the discussion on politics, has steered away from an honorable tribute to a man who stands above party in history to a partisan discussion. Nice work, Republicans.

  • s1c

    There is a difference in mudslinging by the candidates and mudslinging by those who served with him. Dubya, never brought it up, the swift boat veterans brought up his “war record”, of course if he hadn’t of based his whole campaign on the “dubya is a chickenhawk” standard while he was a real “hero”, then it would not have been an issue.

    Clintons war room set the wheels in motion against GHB, and they did everything they could to maximize the smears. However, it is always mud slinging when the gop does it, but just politics when the dems do it.

    Of course, since you hate the mud slinging Todd I am sure that you voted for McCain? Not likely.

  • Todd

    Strike two, S1C. One person’s brothers in arms is another party’s war room.

    I pretty much criticize all smearing and mudslinging in politics. I recognize that’s how it is in both major parties, especially on the national level. So yes, it is politics, but it’s also dishonorable whenever anyone does it.

    And yes, I favored Senator McCain over Mr Bush in 2000. But I didn’t participate in the Republican Iowa caucuses that year, so I never had a chance to register my choice. Anybody up for another pitch?

  • Jack B. Nimble


    Baseball metaphors also include the notion of being in left field, bunts, rookies and sluggers…all of which come to mind in dissecting your claim of ideological objectivity and deep distinctions between the pseudo-warrior Kerry and GHW Bush. May I say something about a third strike here?

  • Todd

    Jack, you may, if you make it quick.

    Assuming I’m a Democrat because I’m not a Republican is indeed a rookie mistake. We independents outnumber R’s at least two to one these days. By the numbers, we’d be batting in Ted Williams’ company, and the GOP? They’d have the slugging prowess of Mark Belanger.

    That a few people have chosen to make assumptions that are both incorrect and irrelevant to the discussion pretty much shows they’re getting punched out at the plate.

    My recollection is that Mr Bush’s war record was not a serious issue in the ’92 campaign. If someone cares to offer evidence to the contrary, fine; otherwise the attempt to bring it up is squeezing in a dose of partisanship when none is really called for.

  • Nate

    He wasn’t as good as your making him out to be. How honorable is it to break your word about raising taxes. His whole administration was about dismantling what Reagan had started. He was too wishy-washy, whether it was raising taxes or leaving Sadam Hessen in power. Probably a better bean counter than a leader. He had no real conviction. The liberal Democrats played him like a fool and he rolled over.

    [None of which changes his honorable service to the nation in time of war. Not everyone is great at politics. -admin]

  • Jack B. Nimble

    Never said you a Democrat, truck driver, Baptist, veteran, or socialist, whatever. I might infer you have liberal inclinations, but what do I know? But my memory is still pretty good. For example:

    from the October 12, 1992 New Republic

    A familiar name, Sidney Blumenthal, is examining President George Herbert Walker Bush’s war record. This is a long excerpt, with a few of Blumenthals’ extraneous thoughts about Clinton, Vietnam, and Bush on the campaign trial omitted:

    Since the first day of the Republican convention there has been no issue emphasized more by the Republicans than Bill Clinton’s draft record… From August 25 to September 21 the Bush-Quayle campaign fired off eighteen press releases attacking Clinton on the draft. The issue also points to… deeply troubling feelings from his past that Bush has wished to submerge for five decades.

    George Bush was a 17-year-old student at Phillips Academy in Andover when Pearl Harbor was bombed. He wanted to join the military at once. Secretary of War Henry Stimson, the president of the prep school’s board of trustees and a friend of Prescott Bush, delivered a speech to the students urging them to remain in school. George’s parents and teachers persuaded him to graduate, but immediately afterward he enlisted in the Naval Air Corps, becoming one of the youngest pilots. “I couldn’t wait for my 18th birthday,” he told U.S. News & Wolrd Report in 1987. He was trained to fly a new torpedo bomber, the Avenger, which was specially built to make emergency landings on water. Bush’s base was the San Jacinto aircraft carrier, from where he made many runs. Indeed, his plane was hit once, and he made a successful water landing. The Avenger proved itself seaworthy enough for the three crew members to paddle in a raft to a rescuing destroyer, singing “Over the Bounding Main.”

    On September 2, 1944 – the day Bush experienced what he has called “the most dramatic individual moment of my life” – he flew off the San Jacinto in a squadron attack on a Japanese radio installation on Chichi Jima island. While approaching the target, his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire. What followed is subject to disputed accounts and may never be truly known. Yet, over time, it has become the center of Bush’s political legend as the hero-pilot, a commander in chief in whom we trust. According to the intelligence report approved sometime later by the squadron leader (it was oddly undated), Bush’s plane was enveloped in “smoke and flames,” and “Bush and one other person were seen to bail out… Bush’s chute opened and he landed safely in water… The chute of the other person … who bailed out did not open.” The plane crashed into the sea and sank. Both John Delaney and Ted White were reported missing in action, presumed dead. The report added a cautionary note: “Bush has not yet been returned to squadron by rescue sub, so this information is incomplete.”

    The confidential log of the USS Finback, the sub that picked up Bush, recorded on the day of the incident that at 11:56 a.m. Bush “stated that he failed to see his crew’s parachutes and believed they had jumped when plane was still over Chichi Jima, or they had gone down with plane.” At 4:20 that afternoon, the Finback picked up another downed pilot, James Beckman, who, according to the log, “stated that it was known that only one mail had parachuted from Bush’s plane” – namely Bush. The log concluded: “This decided us to discontinue any further search of that area….”

    Bush spent eight weeks on the submarine before being reunited with his squadron. Back in the Ready Room on the San Jacinto, he sought out Chester Mierzejewski, who had been the tail gunner on the plane just ahead of Bush’s when it had been hit – the man with the clearest view, only 100 feet away.

    Mierzejewski had been particularly close to Delaney. And Bush seemed to want to answer the agonizing unasked questions: Why didn’t he make a water landing? Why was he the only one to jump? Did he panic? “Look,” Mierzejewski told me Bush said to him, “I’m sure the two of them in the back were dead. I called them three times and got no answer.” (Given the construction of the Avenger, it was impossible for the pilot, shielded by an armor plate, to see the crew; the only communication would have been by radio.)

    Bush was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his action at Chichi Jima, but he evidently was filled with the remorse of the survivor. “You mention in your letter that you would like to help me in some way,” wrote Mary Jane Delaney, the sister of one of those killed. “There is a way, and that is to stop thinking you are in any way responsible for your plane accident and what has happened to your men.” (The letter is published in Flight of the Avenger: George Bush at War by Joe Hyams.) “I try to think about it as little as possible, yet I cannot get the thought of those two out of my mind,” Bush wrote to his parents – a letter he cites in his autobiography, Looking Forward.

    Whether responsible or not for what befell his companions, he felt – admirably – responsible.

    In 1980, campaigning for president, Bush spotted Mierzejewski, who was about to retire as a foreman from the Pratt and Whitney aircraft plant, at a rally in Meriden, Connecticut. “I’m glad to see him,” said Bush, calling attention to his old war buddy from the podium, according to an article in the Meriden Record-Journal “Those were heroic times.” In December 1987 Mierzejewski settled down in his living room to watch Bush, running again, be interviewed by David Frost. He was startled to hear the presidential candidate retell his war story, the one about how the plane was “in smoke and the wings were burning”; and how, of the two crewmen, “one of them got out. I think the other was killed in the plane.”

    This was not what Bush had told Mierzejewski in the Ready Room. Bush had related that he had called them three times – and he insisted that before he deserted the cockpit he was convinced that the two men must have been dead. Now Bush was saving on national T.V. that one of the men got out. “I never saw anyone else coming out of the plane,” Mierzejewski told me. “It seems he Bush was awfully anxious to open that parachute. But I couldn’t guess if those guys were alive. If the people are possibly alive, he was supposed to try to make a water landing. But I’m not in his mind.” Mierzejewski now thought that Bush had “told me” that the men were dead as if he was justifying to me why he was bailing out himself.” And why, he wondered, was Bush talking about smoke and fire? Mierzejewski had witnessed only a “puff of smoke” after Bush’s plane had been hit – not billows of smoke and flames, certainly no smoke in the cockpit.

    Bush’s latest account, he decided, was not right. So he wrote the vice president an anxious letter: “These recollections are entirely different from my recall of the incident… I do not want to see your campaign hurt… I do not intend to dispute you in public.” But he received no reply.

    Mierzejewski’s neighbor, a lawyer to whom he had confided his story, contacted the New York Post, whose reporter in turn contacted Mierzejewski. On August 12, 1988, the first day of the GOP convention in New Orleans, the newspaper published a front-page story, THE DAY BUSH BAILED OUT, by Allan Wolper and Al Ellenberg, which laid out Mierzejewski’s claims. Some of the other crewmen substantiated a number of his details, including that he had the best view. The article noted that Mierzejewski was upset that though he was interviewed by the officer who wrote the intelligence report, his account was not included in it.

    The Bush campaign responded to the story by circulating the intelligence report to the press. A spokesman called Mierzejewski’s version “absurd.” (None of the articles on the event observed that the intelligence report contradicted not only Mierzejewski’s story but also the Finback log.) Then the coup de grace was delivered by Michael Dukakis, who remarked: “I don’t think that kind of thing has any place in the campaign.” Bush’s wish was his command. Never again during the presidential race was the story raised.

    Yet, during the contest, Bush published two campaign autobiographies containing divergent accounts of his war experience. In Looking Forward (written with Victor Gold, a friend and adviser), Bush described telling Delaney and White to “bail out” and jumping himself. “I looked around for Delaney and White, but the only thing in sight was my parachute drifting away.” This story seemed to square with what Bush had related oil the Finback and to Mierzejewski. But in Man of Integrity (written with Doug Wead, Bush’s liaison to the eligious right), he presented a radically different version. “I thought I was a goner,” Bush recounted here. “I looked back and saw that my rear gunner was out. He had been machine-gunned to death right where he was. So then I turned back over the water and we bailed out. “But Delaney did not survive. “He was evidently cut to ribbons as he parachuted down. I was luckier.”

    In 1991 two books celebrated Bush’s exploits as warrior-aviator, just as he was being celebrated as the victor in the Gulf war. Joe Hyams published Flight of the Avenger with “the cooperation of the president,” which neglected to mention Mierzejewski and his story. Robert Stinnett, who had flown with Bush in his plane during the war as a Navy photographer, produced George Bush: His World War II Years, which attempted to refute Mierzejewski by citing four crew-member accounts, which disagreed with Mierzejewski’s version, but did not quote the crew members reported in the New York Post who affirmed a number of Mierzejewski’s particulars. Bush’s story seemed intact…

    What really happened at Chichi Jima will never finally be resolved. Were the men really dead when Bush jumped? Did one man parachute out? Why did the intelligence report say one thing and the Finback log another? And why have Bush’s versions changed over time? Bush’s experience in the Good War was more tortured and his accounts more tortuous than he now admits.

    “I don’t want to think about it,” said Chester Mierzejewski. “I don’t want to get involved politically.” Still, he sees the attacks on Clinton as cynical in the light of what he has come to believe about the event of long ago. “I knew two guys who would be glad if George Bush had been a draft-dodger,” he told me.

    What we do know, in the end, is that terrible things happen in wartime; that the young Bush was consumed with doubt and pain; that the older Bush has presented a simple, unambiguous, but contradicting, story; and that he has directed his campaign to project onto Clinton’s youthful grapplings with a very different war the harsh image of the evader.

    Now, one can believe that Sid Blumenthal’s article, citing Mierzejewski and some differing versions of Bush’s story raises legitimate questions about the former president. And one can believe that the Swift Boat Vets for Truth, all 264 of them and their sworn affidavits, along with Kerry’s Christmas in Cambodia story, raise legitimate questions about Kerry. But it is hard to contend that the former is legitimate hard-nosed journalism while the latter is just a smear campaign.

    Oddly, Blumenthal’s article does not appear to have made much of a splash back in 1992 (a Nexis search reveals that Chester Mierzejewski was referred to in one AP story and a few letters to the editor), and it has been largely forgotten by history.

    When things like this fall down the memory hole, it’s easy to conclude that the left would never question the wartime heroics of a presidential candidate.

  • paul

    Thank you for this post.
    I cannot help but think of a few lines of Kipling [edited]:

    “…If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two imposters just the same;
    If you can bear to to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools….
    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
    Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And – which is more – you’ll be a man, my son!”

  • windswept

    Thank you for this Anchoress. I saw his jump from the airoplane, what a great man.