Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this story incorrectly said the price of the USS George H.W. Bush was $62 billion. It is $6.2 billion. This version has been corrected.

Aircraft Carrier Honors Elder Bush

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 11, 2009

NORFOLK, Jan. 10 -- In a final presidential journey rife with pomp and nostalgia, President Bush joined family and friends here Saturday to commission a new aircraft carrier named for another U.S. president: his father.

After landing on the U.S. Navy's 13th active carrier, the USS George H.W. Bush, the current president praised "President 41" as a leader, public servant and father. Addressing a crowd of about 10,000 that included his parents and four siblings, Bush said he had come "to help commission an awesome ship and to honor an awesome man."

"We will always be inspired by the faith, humor, patriotism and compassion he taught us through his own example," Bush said, speaking for his siblings. "And for as long as we live, we will carry with us Dad's other lessons -- that integrity and honor are worth more than any title or treasure, and that the truest strength can come from the gentlest soul."

Bush's father, walking with the aid of a cane, told the sailors gathered for the ceremony that "you take with you the undying respect and admiration of the entire Bush family."

Barring an unforeseen emergency, President Bush's trip to Norfolk Naval Station marked his last scheduled journey on Air Force One before he hands over power to Barack Obama on Jan. 20. Saturday's ceremony had few overt signs of farewell, yet the event seemed a fitting coda to Bush's presidency and, at least for now, the family's political dynasty. Among those in attendance was the president's brother, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who announced last week that he does not plan on running for Senate.

The gargantuan USS George H.W. Bush is the last of 10 Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers to be commissioned by the Navy. Standing 20 stories high and more than three football fields long, the $6.2 billion "supercarrier" has been under construction since 2001 and is the latest in a long line of ships and submarines named for former commanders in chief.

Other recent commissions include the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier in 2003 and the USS Jimmy Carter submarine in 2005. A new-generation supercarrier named for Gerald R. Ford is now in the works.

The elder Bush, 84, was the youngest aviator in Navy history when he earned his wings at age 19, and he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross while flying 58 missions in the Pacific during World War II. His plane was shot down by Japanese antiaircraft fire in 1944; Bush parachuted into the sea and was rescued by a Navy submarine.

Saturday's commissioning ceremony included a flyover by an Avenger torpedo bomber, the type that George H.W. Bush flew during the war. The colorful commissioning ceremony also included a deafening 21-gun salute from the ship's cannons, followed by warm accolades and gentle teasing for the 41st president.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who served under both Bushes and will continue heading the Pentagon under Obama, said the elder Bush "had a courage and a toughness that impressed all those who worked for him. At the same time, he was, and is, a man of feeling."

President Bush, after sharing a few oft-told tales about his parents and himself, asked the crowd: "So what do you give a guy who has been blessed and has just about everything he has ever needed? Well, an aircraft carrier."

Bush's sister, Dorothy Bush Koch, lavished praise on her presidential kin, saying that her father "made us all very proud," and adding that the new aircraft carrier represents "the universal cause of freedom that our 43rd president has championed with unfailing devotion."

With 10 days left in office, the younger Bush seemed in a gregarious mood in Norfolk, where he also visited privately with teams of Navy SEALs.

After returning to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, Air Force One was towed into its hangar for a closed-door farewell between the president and the Presidential Airlift Group, the last in a series of goodbyes to those responsible for Bush's security and travel.

White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters that "it hadn't dawned" on Bush that the flight to Norfolk was likely his last on Air Force One until he was asked about it by a television correspondent. "He said: 'You know, you're right. This is my last flight,' " Perino said.

When Bush returns to Texas on Jan. 20 on the same plane, it will no longer carry the presidential moniker.

After arriving on the aircraft carrier on Marine One, Bush joined his parents and his wife, Laura Bush, on a golf cart sitting far above the water on the flight deck. As he flashed a big grin, the aircraft elevator on which the cart was sitting suddenly jerked and then plunged some four stories to a lower deck, much to the surprise of reporters and onlookers.

Bush waved and laughed all the way to the bottom.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company