I first met George H.W. and Barbara Bush more than 10 years ago. She had sent me a letter introducing herself as a fan of my novels and asking me to speak at her annual literacy fundraiser. I said yes. She also invited me and my family to visit hers at Walker's Point, the Bushes' historic home in Kennebunkport, Maine. My wife, Michelle, and I were excited but nervous--we were especially worried that Collin, our then-2-year-old, would break a priceless family heirloom. So as soon as we entered their front door, Michelle assumed a defensive position in front of Collin. Mrs. Bush immediately put us at ease.
"We've had lots of grandchildren here. Sit and relax," she said. This laid-back air was bolstered by the former President getting down on the floor to show our daughter, Spencer, his "scoop" method for putting things away after a board game--this involved using the box top to "scoop" up everything helter-skelter. While it was efficient, Mrs. Bush pointed out, it wasn't very organized. "Nothing's perfect, Bar," her husband said with a twinkle in his eye.
Since then, our families have spent some memorable times together. Once, my son accidentally locked himself into one of their powder rooms at Walker's Point, and Mrs. Bush had to ask someone to break a century-old window to get him out. Another time, the former President took me for a ride on his boat, Fidelity III. He said he only had one rule onboard: If he was driving too fast, I should raise my hand. After the seventh time that I was levitated out of my seat by the boat coming fully out of the water, I swallowed my pride and raised my hand. Bush looked at me mischievously, said "Faster?"---and then sped up.
On a recent fall day, I traveled to Maine to spend the afternoon with them. Mrs. Bush met me at the door holding a white maltipoo puppy named Mini. Her husband joined us for lunch on their deck facing the Atlantic. At 85, Bush is tall and trim, with a face that has seen much sun and wind.
His list of accomplishments is long. He was one of the Navy's youngest aviators during World War II, a graduate of Yale, a successful businessman, a Congressman, an ambassador, CIA director, Vice President, and, finally, the U.S. President (our 41st).
Out of a lifetime of amazing experiences, the one that Bush holds most vividly in his mind takes him back nearly 70 years. "It was at a dance in Greenwich, Connecticut, in December 1941. I saw this glorious girl in a green dress with red trimmings. I asked, 'Who is that beautiful girl?' Someone told me, 'That's Barbara Pierce.'"
They were engaged in 1943 and married in 1945. "And ever since then," he added, "if I ever got out of hand, the Silver Fox"--this nickname said while looking fondly at his wife--"would bring me down to earth." Mrs. Bush, now 84, smiled and nodded. In the years that I've known them, their good-natured banter has always been constant and easy.
After 64 years of marriage, the Bushes banter easily.
As newlyweds, they lived in Connecticut while he attended Yale. Their first child, George W. Bush, was born there. They have five surviving children and more than a dozen grandchildren. (Their second-eldest, Pauline Robinson Bush, died of leukemia in 1953.)
After moving to Texas and building a prosperous oil business, Bush entered politics. He served in Congress for four years, followed by stints as the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. and as chair of the Republican National Committee. In 1974, President Gerald Ford offered Bush his choice of plum ambassadorships to England or to France.
"I told him what I really wanted was to be Ambassador to China," Bush said. "Even back then for me, China represented the future. With so many of the world's people, it was inevitable."
He spent 14 months in that country as special envoy. At the time, the U.S. maintained official ties only with the Republic of China on Taiwan, so there was no formal ambassadorship. Bush and his wife enjoyed living in China and biked everywhere--"You can't understand a country from inside a limo"--until President Ford asked him to take another job: CIA director. "My friends told me not to do it, that it was a political dead end, it would finish me off," Bush said.
So why did he accept? "Because my President asked me, and he knew I would do it."
"Aside from the Presidency, I think it was George's favorite assignment," Mrs. Bush added.
"It was a bad time. Congressional commissions were investigating the CIA, and morale was low," Bush recalled. "But what I took away was the dedication and bravery of those folks working to protect our country." Although he was director for just a year, he is credited with restoring the agency's reputation, and its Virginia headquarters is named for him.
Running the CIA was also the job that Bush believes best prepared him for the Presidency. "It showed me what intelligence can and what it can't do," he said frankly. "I came to know the limitations of intelligence. As President, that was invaluable."
As Vice President from 1981 to 1989, Bush witnessed the Presidency's demands up close. "I saw the weight of the decisions Reagan had to make. I saw the toll it took on him. Every decision you make as President is going to have a tremendous impact."
After Bush himself became President in 1989--defeating Democrat Michael Dukakis--the greatest challenge he faced was the Persian Gulf War. "We didn't know how that would play out, but we also couldn't ignore that aggression. When we were victorious, some people said, 'Why didn't you stay and finish [Saddam Hussein] off?' It was because I'd given my word to the coalition that we'd kick him out of Kuwait and then go home. And we did."
Bush's son, George W. Bush, also dealt with a war in Iraq during his Presidency, and some people have speculated that the elder Bush disagreed with him about the conduct of that war. In our conversation, they alluded to the criticism regularly leveled against the younger Bush only when Mrs. Bush said, "As a parent, it's still hard to see your child endure it."
On a much lighter note, Mrs. Bush said that being the First Lady was, in her opinion, "the second-best job in the country." The best job? "Being the spouse of the Vice President."
When I asked why, she said, tongue partly in cheek, "Because nobody cares what the spouse of the V.P. says, so you can basically say anything. But as First Lady, everyone pays attention to you."
More soberly, she continued, "It can be a very powerful force. You can raise money and awareness for some great causes." During her husband's time in office, Mrs. Bush established the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. To date, it has awarded some $34 million in grants. [ Click here for more behind the scenes.]
After Bush lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton, the couple made an uneventful transition back to private life. Since then, they've divided their time between Walker's Point and a home in Houston.
Bush has continued to serve his country. In 2005, at the request of his son, he and Bill Clinton went to Asia to help in the aftermath of the devastating tsunami. The trip led to the former rivals becoming close. "We have a genuine friendship," Bush said of Clinton. "Some people find it hard to believe, but not me. With both of us having been President, we have a lot of common experiences."
The Bushes continue to maintain busy schedules. A typical day for them may include any of the following: walking their dogs on the beach, going out on their boat, spending time with children and grandchildren, doing charity work, attending Astros and Texans games, visiting friends, and working at the Bush Presidential Library at Texas A & M University.
What advice would Bush give to leaders today? "Politics can be civil and not personal. It doesn't have to be shouting and questioning the other guy's motives. Try to see the other person's view. That means you have to listen and not talk all the time."
He was deeply offended by Rep. Joe Wilson's (R., S.C.) outcry during President Barack Obama's September speech to Congress. "There has to be a certain decorum and civility. And that was just smashed. I thought, 'How low have we gotten here?'"
While he said he does not agree with some of Obama's policies, Bush insists that all Americans should want the President to succeed. On the state of the world: "We need to get ourselves out of this financial mess and help Americans get back on their feet. Globally, China and Russia remain critically important. And I think we've got to be careful that we don't fall into the trap of being against Islam because of the excesses of the few."
He'd like to see some of his grandchildren enter public service. "Get in there to do something to help people," Bush said. "George P. [son of Jeb, the former Florida governor] would make a good one, and Pierce [Neil's son] has never met a stranger. He can talk to anyone."
I asked Bush about what he thought his Presidential legacy would be. Surprisingly, he chose not to answer the question.
"I've banned the 'L' word," he declared. "I just think it's better to let history sort out what you got right and what you got wrong. But that doesn't mean you don't care."
When asked what's next for them, Mrs. Bush pointed heavenward.
"You're showing a lot of confidence, Bar," Bush quipped.
"I know you're going up," she fired back at him, "and you'll take me with you, right?"
While the former President is in generally good health, he chafes at having had to use a cane since hip-replacement surgery in 2007. "You're not in the game, just on the sidelines," he lamented about getting older. "Nobody will pick you for their team. I don't feel as driven as I used to, not as motivated. But I am looking forward to seeing my friends in Houston when we go there for the winter and doing some work at my [Presidential] library."
"And jumping out of a plane when you turn 90," his wife reminded him.
"Absolutely. I have every intention of doing that. But piloting the boat keeps me young now. It's something I really love and can still do."
Mrs. Bush added, "And can do very well."
The fearless old Navy pilot smiled. "Well, a crash always makes a bad landing."