The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the end, a peaceful passing for the 41st president

Former president George H.W. Bush, left, and former secretary of state James A. Baker III talk about the Gulf War and the liberation of Kuwait during a 2011 interview in Houston. (David J. Phillip/AP)

The last words spoken by former president George H.W. Bush came barely an hour before he died, in a telephone conversation with his son, former president George W. Bush. The 43rd president had expressed his love for his father. “I love you, too,” the 41st president replied.

The president’s eldest son was on speaker phone, one of a series of final, farewell conversations between the family patriarch and his children, arranged Friday evening as it became clear that the hours were drawing short.

Bush had struggled for days at his home in Houston, not getting out of bed, eating almost nothing, seemingly in decline from the vascular parkinsonism that had restricted his speech and mobility in his final years. But he seemed to find ease in his final moments, said James A. Baker III, Bush’s friend and confidant of 40 years. “It was a very gentle and peaceful and easy passing.”

George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States who helped guide the world out of a four-decade U.S.-Soviet Cold War, died Nov. 30 at age 94. (Video: The Washington Post)

Baker and his wife, Susan, were there at the end. The former secretary of state had visited Bush three times that day, the first on Friday morning. Baker had risen early, as usual, and after a long walk decided to pay a visit to Bush, who lived not far away. Baker knew the former president was ailing.

He arrived about 7:15 a.m. to find Bush sitting up in bed. One of Bush’s caregivers told the former president that “Secretary Baker is here.” 

“He looked up at me and said, ‘Bake, where are we going?’ ” Baker said in a telephone interview Saturday afternoon. “I said, ‘Jefe, we’re going to heaven.’ And he said, ‘That’s where I want to go.’ ”

Bush had always been “Mr. President” to Baker when Bush was in the White House and Baker was his secretary of state. But once Bush was out of office, Baker said, he always called him “Jefe,” Spanish for “chief.”

Photos: Remembering former U.S. president George H.W. Bush

The Atlanta Falcons show a tribute to former president George Bush before the first half of their game against the Baltimore Ravens. (John Bazemore)

That morning, the former president seemed better than he had in several days. After not eating anything on Thursday, Bush enjoyed a big Friday breakfast of three eggs, a bowl of yogurt and fruit drinks. When Baker left, he and others close to Bush thought he might be bouncing back, as he had many times before. 

“We’re going to have another week or two of semi-normal stuff,” Baker recalled thinking. “He was really quite with it and alert.”

Baker paid his second visit hours later, before heading out to dinner with his wife. It was about 5:45 p.m., and by now clear that “things were going a little bit downhill,” Baker said. “Not critically, but some of the vitals were beginning to show disturbing signs.”

Ronan Tynan, the Irish tenor, was in town and had come to the house to visit. He and Bush had become friends over the years. Jean Becker, the former president’s longtime chief of staff, suggested that Tynan sing something.

Tynan chose “Silent Night,” and as he sang, Bush mouthed the words to the beloved Christmas carol. Then Tynan did another song, this one in Gaelic. 

“It was a really sweet thing,” Baker said.

As the Bakers prepared to leave for dinner, Susan Baker gave the former president a kiss on the forehead.

“She said, ‘We love you very much, Jefe,’ ” her husband recalled. Bush “opened his eyes and said, ‘You better hurry.’ He had his sense of humor even then.”

A few hours later, the Bakers were heading home from the restaurant when Baker got a call suggesting that a third visit would be necessary: Bush was slipping away.

The calls to the children were being arranged as the Bakers arrived. Others present, in addition to Bush’s doctor and caregivers and Becker, were Bush’s son, Neil, his wife, Maria, and their son Pierce; a granddaughter, Marshall; and the Rev. Dr. Russell Levenson Jr., the rector at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church.

Bush had lost his wife, Barbara, earlier in the year, and his own health had long been an issue. He had lived an extraordinary life — as a youthful aviator in World War II, a member of Congress, United Nations ambassador, director of the CIA, vice president and ultimately president during a tumultuous time in the world. In his post-presidency, he had become a symbol of a style of politics that had seemingly gone out of fashion. He also had jumped out of airplanes.

He was resilient in the face of his ailments. He had been determined to get to the home in Kennebunkport, Maine, where he had spent summers for much of his life. He was equally determined, Baker said, to return to Houston this fall. He declared that he no longer wanted to go in and out of the hospital when he suffered setbacks. He was determined to stay at home until the end.

Baker was a regular visitor, their friendship forged through years of political battles and the travails of leadership during periods of conflict and upheaval.

A few weeks ago, Baker and Bush were sitting together in the library of Bush’s home. “I said, ‘You want to live to be 100, don’t you?’ ” Baker recalled. “He said, ‘Yes I do, but I don’t think I’m going to make it.’ ”

In the end, Bush fell a bit short of that goal, but not before making his peace and saying his goodbyes. About 40 minutes after telling his eldest son how much he loved him, the 41st president passed away.

Read more: 

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