George H.W. Bush was remembered Sunday as a loving father who reached out to his son during a time of national mourning, a vanquished political opponent who accepted defeat with grace and a commander-in-chief whose time in the White House was marked by poise and dignity.
His eldest son, fellow former GOP President George W. Bush, as well as Democratic ex-presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, explained what the late statesmen did to earn their respect and what he meant to them during a special segment of “60 Minutes.”
“The mission was not George H.W. Bush, the mission was: how do we serve the United States?” Bush said of his 94-year-old father who died Friday. “Dad taught me this. And therefore one of the jobs is to strengthen the institution of the presidency, bring honor to the office. And … clearly George H.W. Bush did that.”
In the candid sit-down with Norah O’Donnell, Bush recalled how his father was at his side during one of his most trying days in office — when he eulogized 9/11 victims during a ceremony at the National Cathedral in Washington — where services will be held Wednesday for his father.
“That was a hard speech to give for starters,” Bush recalled.
His wife, Laura, mom, Barbara and dad all sat in pews close by.
“And I knew not to look down there, to see Laura, mom and dad,” Bush said. “I better focus on this baby, because there’s nothing worse than a blubbering president.”
After he sat down, his dad reached over to grab his hand.
“I felt this hand, it was my dad. It was very comforting. It was just a beautiful gesture,” Bush said. “And it was captured on film and so I’m able to kind of reminisce about that moment. And the emotions of it are still with me.”
Bush also said witnessing how his father weathered public criticism helped prepare him for the brutal realities of the White House, noting that “being the child of a president is unpleasant.”
“You watch somebody you love get lampooned or made fun of or harshly criticized, it hurts,” Bush said. “So by the time I became president I had a fair amount of asbestos on my skin and it didn’t hurt nearly as much, it turns out.”
O’Donnell suggested that he had become “fire retardant” and he agreed.
“In the end, though, we both knew it was part of the job. Which is actually good, you know, for the country. You want powerful people to be held under scrutiny,” Bush said.
He credits his father for getting him interested in politics when the elder Bush ran for the U.S. Senate in Texas just after the son turned 18.
“I got on the campaign trail with him and liked it. Turns out, I like people a lot and campaigning with him was awesome. It was fun and free-spirited in a way,” Bush said.
When Clinton recalled the birth of his post-presidency friendship with Bush, whose bid for a second term he ended in 1992, he remembered a handshake of sorts, too.
Clinton and Bush Sr. were tasked with going to Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people.
“So we’re flying over there. There’s one bed and he made this suggestion that we split the time in the bed,” Clinton told “60 Minutes.” “And I said, no we’re not going to do that. You go sleep in the bed … I can lean up against the wall and sleep. I’ll be fine, I can sleep on the floor.”
This gesture, “somehow … broke the ice,” said Clinton.
“We were like two people circling each other wanting to reach out and shake hands and somehow the darn bed thing was the handshake,” Clinton said.
He worked again with Bush 41 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“In a world where everybody is just gutting each other all the time I thought it was a good thing to show,” Clinton said of the modern era of partisan entrenchment.
Clinton said he believed history would be kind to Bush and he appreciated that his one-time political rival tried to be useful after leaving the White House.
“And he befriended me,” Clinton said. “It’s been one of the great joys of my life, my friendship with him,” Clinton added.
The late president also befriended President Barack Obama, who was the last ex-president to visit with him – three days before he died.
“The two had a very pleasant and private visit at the Bush residence, where they rekindled what was already a very warm friendship,” Bush’s spokesman Jim McGrath said.
Obama said what he learned from his predecessors was “what are the actions they took that you admire? What are the mistakes they made that you want to avoid?”
For Obama, it was Bush showing restraint as the Soviet Union crumbled that made the Democrat so admire the Republican.
“What people don’t appreciate fully – even within his own party – is the degree to which he had to land the plane when the Berlin wall comes down,” Obama said.
“You have chaos potentially in the former Soviet Union and Russia. And uncertainty in Europe. All those things could have gone haywire at any point,” Obama continued. “And the restraint, the caution, the lack of spiking the football [what] they showed was, I think, an enormous achievement.”
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