Former president George H.W. Bush planned to celebrate his 80th birthday this weekend by taking his fourth parachute jump. Then he discovered that, on his fifth skydive, he'd get a pin from the Golden Knights, the U.S. Army Parachute Team.
So Bush decided at the last minute to jump twice -- even though he says his wife, Barbara, pointed out, "You don't need any more pins or any more plaques."
"Even at 80, you get excited about things," he told her puckishly Saturday morning during a charity appearance at a cancer center here.
"There's no fool like an old fool," Barbara, 79, said in a mock-scold, shaking her snowy head. "One might think that a man of 80 would grow up. I guess not."
Over his political career, Bush has often told audiences that his late mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, had a "no-brag rule" and cautioned against "using the 'big I,' " demanding that her children give their utmost on the ballfield but then describe their exploits with humility.
But nothing was being done modestly this weekend on behalf of the patriarch of the nation's reigning Republican dynasty.
The twin parachute jumps on Sunday will be just the finale for the 41st president's birthday, which was Saturday and is being marked with a two-day fundraising extravaganza that has its own logo (41@80) and Web site (www.41at80.org). The line of souvenir collectibles includes a Texas-size belt buckle like the one Bush sported on his pleated trousers during the kickoff event.
Organizers rented Minute Maid Park -- formerly named Enron Field, it's the home of baseball's Houston Astros -- for a 31/2-hour concert for 5,200 Saturday night that, as the nation closed its week of mourning for former president Ronald Reagan, took on the air of a revival. It opened with a prayer for long(er) life for Reagan's vice president of eight years, Christian singer Amy Grant spoke of "fear of the Lord" before picking up her guitar, country artist Wynonna Judd sang "How Great Thou Art," and Grammy-winning gospel singer Michael W. Smith had two numbers.
The show verged on incongruity as Tommy Tune, in white tails, and his Manhattan Rhythm Kings pranced to "I Got Rhythm."
Bush's oldest son -- who is weekending at his ranch in Crawford, Tex. -- dropped by to introduce his siblings and salute his dad. A white curtain parted, and President Bush and first lady Laura Bush received extended, standing applause as they stepped hand in hand onto the stage -- a rock-concert-style edifice that covered the whole infield in a massive arc of lights, screens and speakers.
President Bush, calling his father "our Gampy," drew laughter by joking: "You're probably wondering how I got to be the family spokesman." The president's patter included a joke about a burp and one about a beer.
"Some are here to see the 80-year-old dude," he said, "who tomorrow will strap on a helmet, zip up a suit and launch forth from a perfectly safe aerospace vehicle, arms sprayed, back arched, yelling at Father Time, 'Take this, you old man!' "
CNN's Larry King was the evening's master of ceremonies, Dennis Miller joked and Mikhail Gorbachev was in the house.
Gorbachev later spoke to the crowd through a translator for 10 minutes, joking, "I love to sing, but I don't regard myself as a soloist." The former leader of the Soviet Union said that "of all my counterparts in the world arena, George Bush was the best." Gorbachev said Bush had proposed a joint parachute jump, but said he would wait for his old friend on the ground with a bunch of flowers.
Tickets were available for $100 -- and those were the cheap seats. Security was told to be extra alert to that section in case of hecklers.
After that, admission got steep. For $1 million, a donor could be listed as a "benefactor" and get four invitations to a dinner hosted by George and Barbara Bush in their apartment at the Bush Presidential Library. Ten groups and individuals gave $500,000, earning the title of "underwriter" and getting two tickets to dine with the Bushes, among other benefits. Packages for the $5,000 "supporter" included "complimentary luxury bus transportation" to the parachute jumps.
Nineteen donors made up the million-dollar club, including the Embassy of Qatar and the Washington Times Foundation.
"A wonderful newspaper," George H.W. Bush told the crowd at one event Saturday, in an inner-city recreation center, "offsetting some of the other papers, which we're not talking -- we're not gonna politicize this great event."
At this muggy morning event, where a mural saluting Bush's career exploits was unveiled, guests cooled themselves with red-and-white paper fans emblazoned with the 41@80 logo.
The $55.2 million raised at various events will go to the George Bush Forty-One Endowment, which funds permanent endowments for the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation, the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and the Points of Light Foundation.
Bush, in a videotaped interview shown on huge screens at the "Birthday Celebration & Star-Studded Concert," explained his new charitable focus by saying he does not feel he or Barbara Bush "have adequately given back."
"We show up . . . but we're not in there with our sleeves rolled up," he said. "I sometimes have a guilty feeling about it. I mean it when I say no definition of a successful life does not include service to others."
Bush, who still calls his wife "Bar," said on the video that their main pursuit now is enjoying each other. "We go home, take a little cocktail in the evening, sit down alone in the house, watch half of the movie, then we get up and fix a very, very light dinner, and go back and with that on our laps on a little tray, watch the end of the movie, take it back to Blockbuster's as I did this morning -- 'The Cooler,' " he said.
At the first event, Neil Bush roasted dear old Dad for his "crazy midlife crisis." This year, he reported, his father bought a 34-foot, 750-horsepower speedboat for his summer home in Maine.
"He only knows one speed, and that's full speed," Neil Bush said. "So if he ever invites you out on a boat ride, don't do it."
The former president, wearing a golf shirt, appeared solo at the rec center, the Fonde Community Center. He later was joined by Barbara Bush for a truffles-and-mimosas brunch at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, which renamed its pediatric clinic the Robin Bush Child and Adolescent Clinic. George and Barbara Bush lost Robin, one of their six children, to leukemia in 1953, when she was 3.
The renaming was supposedly a surprise to the couple, and was announced on a plaque in a big wrapped package presented to the Bushes by three of the clinic's patients -- Jose Gobellan, 8, who has leukemia; Aida Ortiz, 7, who is being treated for a tumor in her head; and Devon Dinkens, 16, who has osteosarcoma.
Devon had to help the couple read the citation about Robin -- both Bushes choked up as they tried.
As the couple headed toward their motorcade, the former president blew a kiss and held out a hand to help his bride of 59 years off the stage.
At the Saturday-night show, the ballpark opened feasting stations honoring six phases of Bush's career -- Navy (mini crab cakes), Texas A&M (watermelon), China (cashew chicken spring rolls), Maine (lobster canape), Houston (mini smoked chicken quesadillas) and Washington, D.C. (chicken tandoori skewers and other international eats, in honor of the visitors the Bushes welcomed from around the world, according to a six-panel "Menu Guide" handed to donors).
When he took the stage at the marathon concert, Vince Gill told the former president he "can't imagine what it must feel like to have your son run our country so well," but joshingly needled the staid, largely Republican crowd. "This is the first time I've been in Houston with this much music and nobody's dancin'," Gill said. "This is sad for Texas."
Former vice president Dan Quayle, the 41st president's two-time running mate, told the current commander in chief: "You're a great president, too. Hang in there, you will prevail."
The concert ended with a surprise: The stadium's 242-foot-high retractable roof opened, and seven Golden Knights dropped one by one onto the floodlighted diamond. The Houston Symphony played "Stars and Stripes Forever," and the audience stood and applauded each of the parachutists as they floated in.
Bush planned to wake up Sunday and take the first of his twin dives at 7 a.m., aiming for a flat, grassy field on the grounds of his presidential library at Texas A&M University in College Station. That will be a tandem jump -- "holding on to another guy," as Bush explained it. The main event will be a solo leap scheduled for noon.
"I just feel the sand is going through the glass pretty fast, so you might as well get out there and have fun," Bush said on the video.
After they watch the second plunge from the outskirts of the landing zone, more than 3,000 donors will nibble barbecue in an air-conditioned tent.