New Aircraft Carrier Christened In Honor of George H.W. Bush

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 8, 2006

NEWPORT NEWS, Oct. 7 -- Despite a steady downpour that chilled thousands gathered Saturday in the shipyard here, President Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush, basked in the warm embrace of extended family and friends as they celebrated the christening of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier named after the former president.

The 41st president of the United States punctuated an affectionate reminiscence of his storied life with a father's unconditional defense of the 43rd. "I am very proud of our president," said George H.W. Bush to loud applause. "I support him in every single way, with every fiber in my body."

It seemed more than a throwaway line, but a pointed response to speculation, fanned most recently by a new Bob Woodward book, that the former president is anguished over the Iraq war and that his closest advisers now see the son's administration as a debacle. For his part, the current occupant of the Oval Office paid warm tribute to a "great dad" and "a man who exemplifies the great character of our country."

President Bush also drew laughs when he lauded his steely mother, after noting that the USS George H.W. Bush will be the latest in the Nimitz class of aircraft carriers. "She is unrelenting, she is unshakable, she is unyielding, she is unstoppable," Bush thundered.

"As a matter of fact," he added, "probably should have been named the Barbara Bush."

The official occasion Saturday was the christening of the George H.W. Bush, a naval ceremony that marks the completion of the ship's hull and its ability to float. Another two years of work is necessary before manufacturer Northrop Grumman Corp. can deliver the gigantic $6 billion ship to the Navy, company officials said.

The George H.W. Bush, longer than three football fields and with about 97,000 tons of displacement, is the 10th and last of the Nimitz-class carriers that project American military power to every corner of the globe. The Pentagon is designing the next generation of aircraft carriers, with the first ship's delivery expected in 2015, a Pentagon spokesman said.

Saturday's ceremony was held at the foot of the gigantic gray bow of the unfinished carrier, in the midst of a rainstorm whose loud claps of thunder periodically startled the thousands of dignitaries, Bush family friends, Navy personnel, shipyard workers and company officials gathered at the Northrop Grumman Newport News Shipyard. "I'm finishing, Lord, I'm finishing," Bush promised, drawing laughs as he glanced up at the sky after one particularly powerful thunder clap.

But the storm did little to dampen the festive mood of the crowd, which included dozens of luminaries from the George H.W. Bush administration, including former secretary of state James A. Baker III, former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin L. Powell, who also served the son as secretary of state. Also in the crowd were four of the former president's fellow pilots who served in the Pacific theater during World War II, as well as dozens of old friends and retainers from a lifetime in politics.

A huge cheer went up from the crowd when Doro Bush Koch, the ship's "sponsor" and the former president's daughter, smashed a bottle of American sparkling wine across the bow of the carrier at the end of the ceremony. The crowd also cheered the two Bush presidents, who seemed delighted. The elder Bush took it all in with an almost boyish glee. Holding Barbara Bush's hand, the former president sang enthusiastically along with tenor Ronan Tynan, who rendered "God Bless America."

George H.W. Bush, 82, is the first living former president to attend the christening of a carrier in his honor, and when it came his turn to speak, he told the crowd: "This is any naval aviator's dream come true."

As a young pilot, Bush flew bombing missions off the USS San Jacinto, part of a naval task force in the Pacific; in 1944, his plane was shot down by Japanese antiaircraft fire. Bush parachuted into the sea and was rescued by a Navy submarine after he spent more than two hours aboard a rubber life raft.

The current president devoted part of his brief remarks to the lessons of his father's military service. "The generation of World War II taught the world's tyrants a telling lesson," Bush said. "There is no power like the power of freedom -- and no soldier as strong as a soldier who fights for a free future for his children."

Remembering his World War II service, the elder Bush choked up, especially after recalling his task of reading servicemen's mail to make sure they did not divulge any secrets. "I learned a lot from that. I learned a lot about human nature. I learned a lot about the hearts and dreams of these kids," he said, pausing to compose himself. "I would see these letters written, and I would count my own blessings."

In keeping with his rambling style of public speaking, the former president quickly moved on to a bout of reflection. "It seems surreal that you can go from being a young naval aviator, then surviving a horrible war, then losing an innocent child and having some modest success in business, then rising through the killing fields of national politics to be president," Bush said. "And after four thoroughly challenging years as president, it would be even more improbable to see your own two sons rise to become respected national leaders, to say nothing of the private success of our three other kids. I am truly blessed as a dad."

Bush did allow that he could not say this was the greatest day of his life. He recalled telling Barbara Bush that it was the greatest day of his life when son George was elected governor of Texas and son Jeb governor of Florida -- only to be asked, "What about the day we were married?"

"I would simply have to say," Bush added, to chuckles, "this is, maybe, the third happiest day of my life."

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