Image: Former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush, left, follow the casket of former President George H.W. Bush as it is carried out following a State Funeral at the National Cathedral in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018.(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Duane Rossmann, Guest Writer
Shortly after the Bush Presidential Library opened, my wife, our son and I attended an event featuring a lecture with President George H.W. Bush and the First Lady, Barbara Bush. At the conclusion of the activities we found ourselves standing with the former President and reminiscing about our first encounter with him twenty one years earlier. We introduced him to our son, Samuel, a Texas A&M University student, who was in his mother’s womb when we first met the future President campaigning for the Republican Party nomination for President in 1979. Who would have predicted at our first meeting at Lake Okoboji that Bush would be President, his library would be in College Station and our future son would be an Aggie? I still marvel how our paths intersected through the years and came full circle to this moment at his Presidential Library.
In 1979, my wife, Barbara, and I were Iowa residents and our state had the earliest primary election system in the country. My father in law, Lee Holt, was a prominent Iowa Republican Party politician during this time and Bush sought his help in securing the nomination. Lee Holt drove candidate Bush around to all 99 counties in Iowa and introduced him to the local Republican Party Chairmen. The future President won the Iowa primary against Mr. Reagan in 1980.
In June of 1979, during the primary campaign, Lee invited us to meet Candidate Bush at a campaign stop in a home on the shores of Lake Okoboji, Iowa. It was a beautiful setting. A summer thunderstorm had moved through the area so the temperatures were cool, the skies were clear and the lake was streaked with the final rays of the setting sun. This event took place before choreographed rallies or cadres of press followed a candidate’s every move. The scene was on a patio with Mr. Bush, the guests and no handlers.
We sat and listened to his vision of America. As a former Congressman, CIA Director, Ambassador and Republican Party Chairman, his knowledge of the country and world affairs was unsurpassed. Although he had an East Coast elite childhood, he was easy to talk to and listened when we spoke. This evening campaign event marked the first of several encounters our family had with this fascinating man. As the evening came to a close, I asked him “why do you want to subject yourself to this grueling campaign schedule?” He replied, “I want to serve my country and I think I can do a better job as President.” It was not that he wanted the power and prestige attached to the role but he felt it was his duty to serve his country. The evening is still vivid in my memory.
He lost the Republican Party nomination to Ronald Reagan during the 1980 primary campaign but he never forgot Lee Holt’s help in winning the Iowa primary. Lee, Dorothy (my mother in law), George and Barbara Bush became friends through their campaigning together. In 1981, George became Vice President and served eight years in this role. Christmas cards were exchanged every year between the two couples.
In 1987, I led a team of doctors and nurses to Pakistan to care for Afghan freedom fighters wounded fighting the Soviet Union. At the conclusion of this humanitarian mission, I compiled a report of our activities and sent it to Vice President Bush. Since the Cold War was a very real matter to our politicians I thought he would like to hear my eyewitness account of Soviet atrocities. He replied with a letter thanking me for our efforts and noting his friendship with Lee and Dorothy. I was stunned—a signed letter from the Vice President.
A few months later, I wrote to him again. It was Lee and Dorothy’s 50thwedding anniversary. Their children planned a large reception to celebrate this milestone. I wrote the Vice President asking him to send his regards in the form of a letter that I could read at the party. A few days later, a letter from Vice President Bush arrives with a heartfelt message of congratulations and warm regards from George and Barbara to Lee and Dorothy on the 50thanniversary of their marriage. I was impressed the Vice President of the United States could take the time to remember the people who had helped him achieve his significant political position.
Needless to say, when 1988 rolled around, Vice President Bush called Lee Holt (who was now a Senator in the Iowa Legislature) for his assistance in the Iowa Primary. Bush won the Iowa Republican primary, the Republican Party nomination and the general election becoming the 41st President of the United States. By now we were living in Conroe, Texas so we missed the opportunity to meet with him during the Iowa primary campaign.
Once again I wrote to him, congratulated him on his victory and requested an invitation to his inauguration for our ten year old son, Samuel. A week later, an invitation arrived addressed to Samuel. The package looked like what I imagined an invitation to a Presidential Inauguration would resemble–fancy script, ribbon, gold lettering, printed on heavy paper. We were not able to attend the inauguration but the invitation was displayed at BB Rice Elementary School in Conroe during the festivities for all the children, teachers and parents to see. It was a teaching moment for American democracy.
Fast forward a decade, President Bush served his one term as President and lost the election to President Clinton. He and the First Lady returned to Houston and his Presidential Library was built on the campus of Texas A&M University. Samuel was a student at A&M during this time. Our paths would meet for the final time at the reception where the President and Mrs. Bush reminisced about the Holt’s with Barbara, Samuel and I. As we walked away I thought how fortunate we were to have this connection to a powerful man that began as a chat on a patio looking out at a beautiful lake in Iowa.
I’ve never had a conversation with an American President other than George H. W. Bush. As a citizen, you hope the people who get elected to this esteemed position are decent people who care about the common citizen. President Bush was that type of man.