At President George H.W. Bush's home in Kennebunkport, Maine, there is a sign with four letters: C-A-V-U. Aviators know what this means. Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited.
As the country mourned the loss of our 41st president this week, perhaps we learned more about the remarkable life of George H.W. Bush than during his presidency. There was a sense in America during his tenure that he came from an elite life of privilege. That perception in no way captures the fullness of this man’s journey.
The President began his adult life as a college student at Yale. A star baseball player and high-achiever, a certain unlimited horizon was before him. But he chose to leave Yale and enlisted on his 18th birthday to serve in WWII.
He joined the Navy and became a fighter pilot. On a mission to destroy a Japanese radio tower, his plane was hit by flak. With fire sweeping over the wings, he kept flying, dropped his bombs, and turned back over the ocean. Ordering his crew to hit the silk, he dipped the plane to allow their escape before he jettisoned himself. As the wind caught him, he gashed his head on the tail of the plane and plunged towards the sea. Exhausted and bleeding, he climbed onto a raft. Remarkably, a submarine spotted him, and he was rescued. None of his other crew survived.
At his funeral, it was remarked that he often asked why he was spared, and his crewmen were not. He wanted to live a life worthy of their sacrifice. The war over, he left behind other options on Wall Street, and he and Barbara moved the family to Texas to make their way in the oil business.
As I sat during the funeral at the Washington National Cathedral, a faith-based liturgy based upon the Christian tradition of the Bush family, I had these reflections: “The music is beautiful, timeless, and triumphant, bespeaking of nobility. America is gritty, tough, but the death of a President reminds us of our capacity for sacrifice and beauty." The author of his biography, Jon Meacham, remarked that President Bush was the "last great soldier-statesman...a founding father of the 20th century,” who would say, “Tell the truth, don't blame people...stay the course." Former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson added, “Loyalty--it coursed through his blood. Loyalty to his country…loyalty to his friends." His son President George W. Bush said that he taught the family that public service was noble and necessary.
The night before the funeral, I went to the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol to pay my respects to the President as he lay in state. I just happened to go at a time when the Bush family was entering. Security had cleared the area so that the family could have a private moment. However, President George W. Bush insisted, “No, let the public stay.” The family greeted everyone present. The President shared some kind words with me, and then he looked at us and said, “Don’t cry. If you cry, I’ll cry.”
That moment captured the moving duality of the funeral. There was a formality, dignity, and reverence, as world leaders and five Presidents gathered to pay their respects. The music soared, prayers lifted. But it was also intimate and personal. A family grieved the loss of their father, and friends told of their close relationship—an American public liturgy.
Although his presidency was only one term, upon reflection, some incredible things happened during that period of time. The First Gulf War was executed with absolute precision through an impressive international coalition of the willing and with minimal loss for America. The Berlin Wall fell. He signed the Clean Water Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Comedian Dana Carvey hilariously caricatured him (they also became friends), mocking the expressions “thousand points of light” and “stay the course.” Maybe we didn’t fully understand back then. Now we do.
Stay the course. Be one of the Thousand Points of Light. Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited.
Congressman Jeff Fortenberry serves Nebraska’s First District.