Our nation paused this past week to bid an emotional farewell to its last president drawn from the Greatest Generation, a generation that, by God’s grace and undaunted courage, helped save Western Civilization. Tributes cascaded from the pulpits of both the National Cathedral in Washington and St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston. That generation’s enduring virtues of guts and sacrifice were celebrated by renowned statesmen such as his closest friend, former Secretary of State James Baker; insightful chroniclers such as Bush’s biographer, Jon Meacham; and by family members likewise drawn to public service — a son, President George W. Bush 43, and a grandson, George P. Bush.
Our country will long remember the final salute to the flag-draped presidential coffin at the Capitol given by ailing, 95-year-old Bob Dole, likewise a highly decorated World War II veteran. The former senator, severely wounded in Italy during the war, could have saluted his fallen commander-in-chief while seated in his wheelchair, but the man from Russell, Kansas, fiercely resolved to rise up to present properly that universal symbol of profound respect and loyalty.
For those of us Texans gathered at St. Martin’s on Thursday morning, who can forget the magnificent strains of “Amazing Grace,” masterfully performed by the Oak Ridge Boys (fulfilling a pledge made long ago), and “The Lord’s Prayer,” sung powerfully by country artist Reba McEntire. Bush 41 loved music, even if he wasn’t, as the Oak Ridge Boys quipped, that distinguished a singer himself.
As sights and sounds unfolded in Houston’s most beautiful sanctuary, my thoughts kept running back to a lifetime of friendship with the president and his life’s companion, the incomparable Barbara Bush. While working on Capitol Hill during my undergrad days at George Washington University in the turbulent late 1960s, I escorted a group of folks from the Texas Panhandle to the cafeteria in the Longworth House Office Building. I spotted the newly elected congressman from Houston and made a beeline for him. And as the nation came to expect of this Connecticut Yankee-turned-resolute Texan, I was met with the future president’s famous kindness and courtesy.
I brashly interrupted his conversation — probably with constituents — to say, “Congressman, I’d like you to meet some folks visiting here from Amarillo.” For those few minutes, George Herbert Walker Bush was now an honorary congressman from a faraway district. He didn’t know my charges, but they became his instant friends.
As vice president, Bush 41 welcomed Alice and me to the Naval Observatory residence during the first Christmas of the Reagan-Bush administration in 1981. An inscribed photo capturing that visit is on display in our Waco home. As heady days unfolded, history was made. Genuine partnership between the two formerly bitter rivals for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination rapidly developed into close friendship. The two reinforced each other as the Reagan administration encountered challenges at home and perils abroad.
Whatever their past differences, no daylight could be found between Ronald Reagan and his vice president once inaugurated. I saw this from my perch as chief of staff to Attorney General William French Smith, charter member of Reagan’s famed Kitchen Cabinet back in California. From the attorney general’s perspective, there was no more true-blue friend of Ronald Reagan than his vice president, who many in the Reagan inner circle had scorned. It had to be hard to move from vigorous political opponent to friend and implementer of the Reagan agenda. George H.W. Bush did so with conviction and gusto.
My call to serve newly elected President Bush came in early 1989 when I was in my sixth year on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in Washington. I was summoned to return once more to the Justice Department to serve as solicitor general. I’ll always remember a telephone call from his White House counsel, C. Boyden Gray, concerning a position our office was taking in a closely watched Supreme Court case: Our legal position had drawn the ire of some of the president’s most fervent and loyal supporters.
The question was simple: “Ken, are you sure you’re right?” In law as in life, one does well not to be overly confident. Yet after careful study our office felt the position we had taken was indeed correct under the law. That’s all the president needed to hear. Thankfully, our position prevailed before a unanimous Supreme Court.
All good things must end, and back to Houston the 41st president and the nation’s favorite first lady returned. Twelve years of service — as both vice president and president — drew to a close and the next generation took center stage. In January 2000, the Bushes’ son — Texas Gov. George W. Bush — found himself in a tough fight for the Republican nomination for president. I visited the father’s office on Memorial Drive in Houston. Bush 41 was mastering the newfangled technology of desktop computers with information flowing in from New Hampshire as its primary election — first in the nation — loomed the following week.
Having just finished the controversial Whitewater investigation, I joked: “Mr. President, I want to be of help. Just let me know whether it would be more helpful for me to support the governor or, instead, to come out in opposition.”
He jumped out of his chair: ”Oh, no. We need support, not opposition.”
So it was, and in a tumultuous election, President George Herbert Walker Bush became known to history as 41 as his son became our 43rd president.
It was always a privilege to be in Bush 41’s gracious company, including at the presidential library at his adopted university of Texas A&M. We loved the snug living quarters where the president and Barbara hosted dignitaries from around the world — as well as some less-distinguished admirers from close to home. On one occasion, I asked about his skydiving. Barbara made it clear: The 41st president had taken his last jump during those still-vigorous years of his 80s. The president grumbled but didn’t suggest any act of civil disobedience was in the offing.
Time took its toll. When Alice and I visited the president and Barbara in their West Houston home, practically in the shadow of St. Martin’s, just prior to Thanksgiving 2016, Barbara was by then using a walker; for his part, the president was practically immobile. But their minds were sharp, clear. And as was so characteristic of them, both wanted to talk only about us. No marching down memory lane for either of them.
We were still in our post-Baylor period of adjustment then. They were concerned. I assured them both: “We love Baylor. In fact, I’m writing a book which my agent has already described as ‘Ken’s love story to Baylor.’” The adopted Aggies listened sympathetically.
We said our goodbyes and stepped out into the chilly November night. Christmas decorations were already on display in their Galleria neighborhood in West Houston. We had said, as it turned out, our final, deeply personal farewell to two of the nation’s favorite citizens and distinguished public servants.
As we saw at Barbara’s memorial service at St. Martin’s in April, then again this past week, they were among the greatest of the nation’s Greatest Generation. America has been reminded yet again that greatness can appear in a quiet, still spirit, as immortally illustrated by the very first Christmas some 2,000 years ago.