Grateful… And Joyous

January 21st, 2009 at 1:26 pm | 2 Comments |

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John S. Gardner joined those gathered at Andrews AFB yesterday to bid former President Bush and Mrs. Bush farewell on their way to their new life in Dallas.

On a normal day, thumb you hear the helicopters first. The sound is unmistakable and provides the signal that the President is approaching.Today, drugstore there was only one; no need for reporters, malady staff, and the others who fill a normal Presidential “movement.”

On this day in 1993, a similar event was less formal, more spontaneous. Then, we gathered on the tarmac, a smaller band, to witness the first former President Bush depart for his new life in Houston. Today, the exigencies of tight security and a greater crowd made the occasion far more structured but, in a certain way, more hopeful, helped along by an Air Force band and a country band, the latter an omnipresent feature at Bush-related gatherings. Visible tears were few. Though one could not always read the quiet thoughts of those in attendance, coffee and hot chocolate seemed to warm hearts as well as bodies on a very chilly morning, with wind gusts blasting down the long runway, as we entered a hanger to await George W. Bush’s first post-Presidential event.

We saw the helicopter – no longer Marine One – approach through the windows of the hanger. As it landed, the huge door of the hanger where we were gathered suddenly opened to reveal the airplane known from the number on its tail as 28000 – again, no longer Air Force One – an awesome sight which brought cheers to the crowd. The former President and Vice President and their wives took the stage, the “blue goose” podium devoid of its usual seal.

It’s always good to hear from former Vice President Cheney. From his wheelchair, he joked that he had told Joe Biden that after eight years as Vice President, one ends up as he did. Cheney gave a stirring call to public service. He recounted how on this day in 1977, when his tenure as President Ford’s Chief of Staff ended, he wondered what he was going to do and gently remarked that perhaps some of those gathered know the feeling. But he continued that never on that day did he dream that his most important and useful days of public service, in meeting great challenges to our Nation, would lie ahead. He therefore asked us to consider that we never know when we will be called back to public service but was confident that those gathered here would be and wanted us to answer the call to serve.

At that moment, the sun opened through the clouds.

Cheney concluded with a joke that the lesson was always to agree to serve on a search committee, but the real point of his remarks was an uplifting challenge. Less dramatic, doubtless, than Churchill’s famous “Never give up! Never!,” but this was not the day for those sentiments, nor is that Cheney’s style. The import of his words was clear: we all need to work together, we will rebuild our party, and one day, we will return to public service.

The sun parted once more during former President Bush’s remarks as he saluted the members of the Armed Forces for their service and dedication in volunteering to defend the country in a time of war. His remarks were heartfelt and gracious, with more than the usual touch of Bush wit. On the serious side, he said, as he often does, that there was for him no greater honor as President than to serve as Commander in Chief – words he has repeated many times, particularly in these final months, but with him, one always knew it was sincere. He said that on this day, he felt grateful and joyous. He was grateful to Vice President Cheney, to Laura, to his Cabinet and Administration. He gave a plug for Mrs. Cheney’s forthcoming biography of Madison. (And for anyone with children interested in teaching them about the story of Washington crossing the Delaware that President Obama recalled in his Inaugural Address, there’s also When Washington Crossed the Delaware: A Wintertime Story for Young Patriots).

For Bush, there is no greater honor than public service, and he was happy to have worked with so many who served not for personal gain, not for partisan gain, but simply to serve the people. He told how happy he was simply to be Citizen Bush and how proud he was to be a citizen of the United States. We did not shirk from our duties, he said, and he leaves office with his held high.  One could see a smile and the confidence on his face.

After working a ropeline of supporters, the former President and First Lady passed a military honor guard to climb the red-carpeted stairs. They waved one final time and entered the aircraft. The stairs moved away, the plane started its long taxi down the runway for a few minutes as time seemed to stand still. Then suddenly it took off with a roar, its occupants now permitted, after eight long years, truly to relax.  On the ground, those who were privileged to attend this event, many newly “formers” themselves, had time to reflect on the President’s words – and the Vice President’s challenge.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • eli

    Thanks, Mr. Gardner, for the account of Bush’s leave. Unfortunately, it was not widely reported.

  • AnotherThought

    I recall the cameras covering every minute of Bill Clinton’s departure at Andrews AFB following his disgraceful pardons and the childish trashing of the White House offices by his staff, not to mention the theft of WH furniture. GWB has handled himself with grace.