By: Jean Becker
Thirty years ago today, George and Barbara Bush woke up in the White House, the President and First Lady of the country they loved. Before he walked out of the Oval Office for the last time, President Bush left this note behind for William Jefferson Clinton, the man who had deprived him of a coveted second term:
January 20, 1993
When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.
I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.
There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.
You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.
Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.
Then after attending the new president’s inauguration, they flew to Houston. They were home. “This is the first minute of the beginning of our new life, and I can’t think of any place better to begin,” President Bush told the hundreds of supporters who showed up at Ellington Air Force Base to welcome them home. Thus continued the love affair that began between the Bushes and Houston when they moved here in 1959 from Midland and which continued until their deaths in 2018.
After years of being on the national stage, it a took a while to settle back into Houston and private life. Just a week after they came home, President Bush wrote a friend:
[Barbara] is writing away and even though she dropped a $3.00 jar of sauce and splattered it all across our tiny kitchenette she is proving once again to be a fine cook. It’s far better than microwaving it. I am the dish man. I rinse the plates and put them in the washer. Almost simultaneously I load our coffee machine, and then we walk the dogs. And along the way we count our blessings.
Mrs. Bush was indeed writing her memoirs while President Bush went every day to his new office at 10,000 Memorial Drive. They also started building a house on an empty lot they had owned for several years in the Tanglewood neighborhood.
Oh, and they became frequent visitors of Sam’s Club, a huge discovery for the former White House tenants. Despite the fact it was just the two of them, they loved buying everything in bulk. I am convinced there are still several large cannisters of Cheetos floating around Houston.
But it didn’t take long for them to emerge from their self-imposed cocoon – President Bush especially needed to lick his wounds just a bit – and become fully emerged in Houston life. On Sunday mornings you could find them attending church services at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, often followed by lunch at Molina’s. They were frequent patrons of the Theater Under the Stars, and when it was time for baseball, you could easily spot them sitting behind home plate at the Astros games.
And of course they were Points of Light. President Bush became an active member of M.D. Anderson’s Board of Visitors, eventually becoming chairman of that board. The two of them would help raise several hundred million dollars for cancer research over the next 20 years.
Mrs. Bush would host every year A Celebration of Reading – a tradition her son Neil and his wife Maria continue today — to raise money for her literacy foundation, making sure a big chuck of the money raised stayed here. It became a very popular event as the Bushes brought to town best-selling authors and celebrities and enjoyed poking fun at themselves in their opening dialogue.
My favorite Celebration story: The year President Bush invited a pig to attend. The event came just a month after Mrs. Bush’s open-heart surgery at Methodist Hospital where a pig heart valve was used to replace one of her defective ones. President Bush had the odd and yet brilliant idea that we needed to find a pig to come out on stage, playing the part of the relative of the valve donor. The pig was there, in theory, to protest. We actually found a pig, who after he walked on stage, immediately defecated. Maybe he was mad …
They were such frequent keynote speakers at fund-raising lunches and dinners that Mrs. Bush once worried that between the two of them, they had helped raised money for every single nonprofit in town. Why worry about that? She was concerned everyone in town had heard all her jokes. And when Houston needed them most, they were front and center.
In 2003, when the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded over Texas as it re- entered Earth’s atmosphere, President and Mrs. Bush quietly and without fanfare went to the Johnson Space Center to give support and hugs to everyone in mission control.
When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Louisiana and Mississippi coastlines in 2005, President Bush brought his brand new “disaster” partner, President Clinton, to town after Houston opened its doors and hearts to Katrina refugees. The Bushes and Clintons spent hours at NRG Center, trying to touch and hug as many people as possible.
A few months later, when Houston’s United Way was running low on funds trying to support the displaced Katrina residents, the Bushes volunteered to participate in a telethon hosted at KPRC/Channel 2. While President Bush helped host the event, Mrs. Bush answered the phones, sitting between ZZ Top (I’m not sure which one but he had a long beard) and Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza. I still regret not snapping a photo.
When Hurricane Ike roared ashore in 2008, President Bush, President Clinton, and Secretary James Baker stood on the beach in Galveston with local leaders, pledging their help and support.
After being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, President Bush became less involved in large-scale events. But when Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston in 2017 – about a year before President Bush died – he told me to “suit up.” I gently told him I thought he was too frail to participate in any kind of fund-raising campaign. His answer to me: “It’s Houston, Jean. It’s home.”
Partnering with his son, the two President Bushes brought with them to a fund-raising concert at Texas A&M with presidents Obama, Clinton, and Carter. And oh, Lady Gaga, among others, raising a total of $44 million that night and in the next few weeks.
Whether they were spotted on the kiss cam on Astros game; cheering on the Houston marathon runners; tossing the coin at a Texans game; serving up Thanksgiving dinner at Star of Hope; watching the golfers at the Shell Houston Open; or taking in a concert or a play, the lives of George and Barbara Bush and their hometown were happily intertwined, in good times and bad.
After Mrs. Bush died in April of 2018, President Bush returned to that “other hometown” – Kennebunkport, Maine — for what we knew would be one last summer. Around Labor Day, his Maine-based doctors told President Bush’s medical aide, Evan Sisley, that they did not think he would survive the long trip back to Texas and recommended he stay in Maine for his final days.
So Evan and I sat down with him to see what he wanted to do. I guess I was being a little vague – prattling on about how maybe we should stay a little later this year and see the leaves turn colors. President Bush looked at us and said: “Are you asking where I want to die?” When we admitted that was the case, his answer was quick, simple, and final.
“Take me home.”
And home he was, when he died a few months later, on November 30th, in the city George and Barbara Bush called home for 59 years. What a love story it was.