In George H.W. Bush’s final days, Jon Meacham — the Bush biographer, presidential historian and one of four people chosen to eulogize the 41st president — decided to share the words of his speech with its subject.
And the ailing Bush responded in characteristically self-deprecating fashion:
“That’s a lot about me, Jon.”
Meacham is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who wrote a 2015 biography of Bush. He relayed the story to NBC “Sunday Today” show host Willie Geist, who said on Twitter that the author had given him permission to share it with the world after Bush’s funeral.
In the eulogy earlier Wednesday, Meacham recounted how Bush barely escaped death after being shot down as a Navy pilot during World War II, then grappled with survivor’s guilt.
“The workings of providence are mysterious, but this much is clear: The George Herbert Walker Bush who survived that fiery fall into the waters of the Pacific made our lives, and the lives of nations, freer, better, warmer, nobler,” Meacham said.
Meacham, who could not immediately be reached for comment, called Bush “America’s last great soldier-statesman, a 20th-century founding father. He governed with virtues that most closely resemble those of Washington and of Adams, of TR and of FDR, of Truman and of Eisenhower, of men who believed in causes larger than themselves.”
Bush, Meacham said, was “a lion who not only led us, but who loved us.”
The full text of Meacham’s speech:
The story was almost over even before it had fully begun. Shortly after dawn on Saturday, Sept. 2, 1944, Lieutenant Junior Grade George Herbert Walker Bush, joined by two crew mates, took off from the USS San Jacinto to attack a radio tower on Chichijima. As they approached the target, the air was heavy with flak. The plane was hit. Smoke filled the cockpit; flames raced across the wings. “My god,” Lieutenant Bush thought, “this thing’s gonna go down.” Yet he kept the plane in its 35-degree dive, dropped his bombs, and then roared off out to sea, telling his crew mates to hit the silk. Following protocol, Lieutenant Bush turned the plane so they could bail out.
Only then did Bush parachute from the cockpit. The wind propelled him backward, and he gashed his head on the tail of the plane as he flew through the sky. He plunged deep into the ocean, bobbed to the surface, and flopped onto a tiny raft. His head bleeding, his eyes burning, his mouth and throat raw from salt water, the future 41st president of the United States was alone. Sensing that his men had not made it, he was overcome. He felt the weight of responsibility as a nearly physical burden. And he wept. Then, at four minutes shy of noon, a submarine emerged to rescue the downed pilot. George Herbert Walker Bush was safe. The story, his story and ours, would go on by God’s grace.
Through the ensuing decades, President Bush would frequently ask, nearly daily, he’d ask himself, “Why me? Why was I spared?” And in a sense, the rest of his life was a perennial effort to prove himself worthy of his salvation on that distant morning. To him, his life was no longer his own. There were always more missions to undertake, more lives to touch, and more love to give. And what a headlong race he made of it all. He never slowed down.
On the primary campaign trail in New Hampshire once, he grabbed the hand of a department store mannequin, asking for votes. When he realized his mistake, he said, "Never know. Gotta ask." You can hear the voice, can't you? As Dana Carvey said, the key to a Bush 41 impersonation is Mr. Rogers trying to be John Wayne.
George Herbert Walker Bush was America’s last great soldier-statesman, a 20th-century founding father. He governed with virtues that most closely resemble those of Washington and of Adams, of TR and of FDR, of Truman and of Eisenhower, of men who believed in causes larger than themselves. Six-foot-two, handsome, dominant in person, President Bush spoke with those big strong hands, making fists to underscore points.
A master of what Franklin Roosevelt called the science of human relationships, he believed that to whom much was given, much is expected. And because life gave him so much, he gave back again and again and again. He stood in the breach in the Cold War against totalitarianism. He stood in the breach in Washington against unthinking partisanship. He stood in the breach against tyranny and discrimination. And on his watch, a wall fell in Berlin, a dictator's aggression did not stand, and doors across America opened to those with disabilities.
And in his personal life, he stood in the breach against heartbreak and hurt, always offering an outstretched hand, a warm word, a sympathetic ear. If you were down, he would rush to lift you up. And if you were soaring, he would rush to savor your success. Strong and gracious, comforting and charming, loving and loyal, he was our shield in danger’s hour.
Now, of course, there was ambition, too. Loads of that. To serve, he had to succeed. To preside, he had to prevail. Politics, he once admitted, isn't a pure undertaking; not if you want to win, it's not. An imperfect man, he left us a more perfect union.
It must be said that for a keenly intelligent statesman of stirring, almost unparalleled, private eloquence, public speaking was not exactly a strong suit. “Fluency in English,” President Bush once remarked, “is something that I’m often not accused of.” Looking ahead to the ’88 election, he observed inarguably, “it’s no exaggeration to say that the undecideds could go one way or the other.” And late in his presidency, he allowed that “we are enjoying sluggish times, but we are not enjoying them very much.”
His tongue may have run amok at moments, but his heart was steadfast. His life code, as he said, was “Tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Be strong. Do your best. Try hard. Forgive. Stay the course.” And that was and is the most American of creeds. Abraham Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature” and George H.W. Bush’s “thousand points of light” are companion verses in America’s national hymn. For Lincoln and Bush both called on us to choose the right over the convenient, to hope rather than to fear, and to heed not our worst impulses, but our best instincts.
In this work, he had the most wonderful of allies in Barbara Pierce Bush, his wife of 73 years. He called her “Barb,” “the Silver Fox” — and when the situation warranted — “the Enforcer.” He was the only boy she ever kissed. Her children, Mrs. Bush liked to say, always wanted to throw up when they heard that. In a letter to Barbara during the war, young George H.W. Bush had written, “I love you, precious, with all my heart, and to know that you love me means my life. How lucky our children will be to have a mother like you.” And as they will tell you, they surely were.
As vice president, Bush once visited a children’s leukemia ward in Krakow. Thirty-five years before, he and Barbara had lost a daughter, Robin, to the disease. In Krakow, a small boy wanted to greet the American vice president. Learning that the child was sick with the cancer that had taken Robin, Bush began to cry.
To his diary later that day, the vice president said this: “My eyes flooded with tears. And behind me was a bank of television cameras. And I thought, ‘I can’t turn around. I can’t dissolve because of personal tragedy in the face of the nurses that give of themselves every day.’ So I stood there looking at this little guy, tears running down my cheek, hoping he wouldn’t see. But if he did, hoping he’d feel that I loved him.”
That was the real George H.W. Bush, a loving man with a big, vibrant, all-enveloping heart. And so we ask, as we commend his soul to God, and as he did, “Why him? Why was he spared?” The workings of providence are mysterious, but this much is clear: that George Herbert Walker Bush, who survived that fiery fall into the waters of the Pacific three-quarters-of-a-century ago, made our lives and the lives of nations freer, better, warmer, and nobler.
That was his mission. That was his heartbeat. And if we listen closely enough, we can hear that heartbeat even now. For it’s the heartbeat of a lion, a lion who not only led us, but who loved us. That’s why him. That’s why he was spared.