A plaque that says “CAVU” hangs on the wall facing the ocean in Walker’s Point, George H.W. Bush’s summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine.
It was a reminder of his World War II service as a naval aviator, he said in an interview as he was about to turn 80.
During the war, there was no radar on planes, he said, “so what we prayed for at night for the next day was that we’d have Ceiling And Visibility Unlimited. That’s where my life is today.”
A few days later, he parachuted from a plane for the fourth time. The first was when he bailed from his burning bomber over the Pacific in 1944. He kept a promise to himself with a tandem jump in 1997, followed by another in 1999. He wanted to prove that “old guys can still do stuff,” he said. He leapt from a plane again when he was 85 and then at 90.
Bush landed on the grounds of his presidential library at Texas A&M in College Station after that 80th birthday jump. He joked that if things hadn’t turned out well, it would have been a conveniently short trip to his burial site on campus.
The 41st president — he and George W. really did call each other “41” and “43” — will soon be laid to rest in that spot. His death Friday at 94 brought back a flood of memories.
I covered Bush’s presidency and his failed 1992 re-election campaign for USA Today. After his White House days, I interviewed him several more times and visited him at his Maine and Houston homes.
The CAVU plaque is evidence of the commitment to service that defined his life. “Fair winds and following seas, Sir. We have the watch,” the U.S. Navy tweeted Saturday.
Bush’s bearing reflected his military background, but he was rarely officious. He could be self-deprecating. Like 43, he was easily moved to tears. He was a guardian of his family.
He invariably sent handwritten notes after each visit. He was a prolific letter-writer and in 1999 published a book of his missives titled with his signature signoff: “All the best.”
He could be goofy. In one campaign speech he tried to say “Nitty Gritty Dirt Band,” and blurted out “nitty ditty nitty gritty great bird.” He wasn’t great at “the vision thing,” he said, and he wasn’t a natural campaigner, maybe because of the starch of his patrician New England upbringing.
He grew convinced during his re-election race that the news media wanted him to lose. The campaign printed caps and bumper stickers that read “Annoy the media: Re-elect Bush” — a precursor to a theme of the 2016 campaign.
During an interview on Air Force One a few days before the 1992 election, it was evident that he would probably lose. He seemed tired and hurt. Later, he would agonize over his sons’ campaigns (Jeb was Florida’s governor and ran for president in 2016), poring over poll data and fuming at the TV.
After his 1992 loss to Bill Clinton, whom he would later consider almost a surrogate son, Bush for a time resisted the spotlight.
He rejected my interview request in a Feb. 10, 1994, letter. “Do not let your promising career be trivialized by interviewing the unemployed, the retired, the ‘used-to-be’ types,” he wrote. “I do garage cleaning. I do light cooking, but I don’t do interviews.”
Bush knew the names of the stewards on Air Force One and the butlers in the White House. We once had lunch at Ninfa’s, his favorite Mexican restaurant in Houston, and he warmly greeted the staff there.
My mom was hospitalized with atrial fibrillation when he was preparing for his 85th birthday parachute jump. He sent word to her that he had an irregular heartbeat, too, and suggested that she should tough it out and jump from a plane with him. She recovered.
He was often full of mischief. During one visit to Kennebunkport, he decided that I should have a ride in his newest boat. First he decreed that my shoes were inadequate and insisted that I wear a worn pair of Barbara Bush’s sneakers.
Bush also suggested that I wear a life jacket, and after Secret Service frogmen checked the bottom of the boat, he slammed it into high gear and roared into the ocean. I was tossed around as he steered in tight circles and the boat bounced off breaking waves. He looked back at me with a wicked grin.
As the years wore on, Bush continued to raise money for natural disaster recovery, but he slowed down. When we talked in his Houston office in 2009 about his partnership with Clinton to collect donations for Hurricane Ike relief, he showed off a bright red motorized scooter. His newly diagnosed vascular Parkinsonism, which affected his mobility, had forced him to use it.
Two years later when I spoke to him for a story about what would have been Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday, he spoke haltingly, searching for the right words — another theft by the disease. It felt like he was fading away.
Bush described a 1996 meeting with Reagan, whom he had served as vice president for eight years. Reagan had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease two years earlier, and Bush described a moment in their conversation when “I could tell he was a little off.”
He was uncomfortable with introspection, at least in public, so this is how he answered a question about his place in history in a 1997 interview:
“I don’t want anyone to pay attention to me,” he said. “I’m confident that historians from one perspective or another are going to write and say what they think and then there’ll be a merge of a judgment of our administration.” He added with a smile: “I think history’s going to be relatively kind.”
Judy Keen, a Star Tribune political reporter, was the White House correspondent for USA Today during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. She can be reached at 612-673-4234