COLLEGE STATION, Texas — The connections between former President George H.W. Bush — who died Friday night at the age of 94 — and Aggieland began in 1977. Bush made his first official trip to the Texas A&M campus when he was asked to deliver a prestigious national award to the public university for a new program created to combat economic illiteracy.
He had recently finished a term as director of the CIA after serving as the chief of the U.S. Liaison Office to the People’s Republic of China, and he was asked to speak about those experiences.
Less than three years later, Bush returned to Aggieland, this time to speak at DeWare Field House. It was two days before the Texas presidential primary, and the then-candidate was en route to his adopted hometown of Houston 95 miles away.
The friendliness he experienced during those two trips, along with the recognition that Aggies and public service were often fused together, made an impression on the Yale University graduate, World War II hero and former U.S. state representative from Texas, he would later tell The Eagle. Those who knew him, including Aggies who worked on his staff, weren’t surprised when he later agreed to speak at several events on the College Station campus during his vice presidency in the 1980s.
But it wasn’t until a few weeks after he secured the majority popular and electoral votes to win the presidency that an improbable — if not seemingly untenable — idea was posed to the lifelong Republican. Oil tycoon and distinguished Aggie alum Michel Halbouty took the opportunity during a private meeting in the vice president’s office to ask if he’d consider building his presidential library and museum on the Texas A&M campus. Not even sworn in as commander in chief just yet, Bush kindly replied that it was too early for such thoughts.
Halbouty — a world-renowned earth scientist and engineer who served as a regent at the school where he earned an undergraduate and master’s degree — was persistent. He spoke with then-Chancellor Perry Adkisson, who seized the occasion to quickly get to work in devising a detailed plan with William A. McKenzie, the chairman of the Board of Regents. A steering committee was appointed and at work within weeks. Its members were were organized. They spoke to architects, engineers, educators, students, administrators and fundraisers and toured other presidential libraries. The push turned into a hard, well-executed sell in person 5½ months later when Bush again was a commencement speaker at an A&M graduation.
A presidential hangout
That day in May 1989 marked Bush’s first foreign policy speech since taking office as president, and it was far from the last time Air Force One would land at nearby Easterwood Airport to deliver a sitting president assigned to address thousands of Aggies and Bryan-College Station community leaders. Because of Bush, President Clinton — joined by former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford — came to town to honor him on the day the museum and library were dedicated in 1997.
Bush’s son — the 43rd president, George W. Bush — was closing out his second term when he took the stage at Reed Arena to advise Aggie graduates on their next step.
Barack Obama was at the beginning of his presidency when he was invited by the elder Bush to celebrate volunteerism at a Points of Light event on campus.
Former presidents Carter, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama joined the 41st president in 2017 in the One America Appeal campaign to raise money for victims of catastrophic hurricanes Harvey in Texas, Irma in Florida and Maria in Puerto Rico. Plans to celebrate the Bush Library’s 20th anniversary changed following the punishing storms, and Bush opted for a benefit concert rather than a gala.
The benefit brought the five former presidents together at Reed Arena on Oct. 21, 2017, in a night of solidarity to raise money. The evening, titled “Deep From the Heart: The One America Appeal” featured performances by music stars Lady Gaga, Alabama, Sam Moore and Aggies Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen, among many others. It was announced during the event that the campaign had earned $31 million for hurricane relief. By January 2018, that amount rose to $42 million.
A tour through the Greatest Generation
Twenty-thousand people — world leaders, dignitaries, politicians and public officials, along with athletes, actors, musicians and community members — showed up on a warm, sunny day on Nov. 6, 1997, to dedicate the library and museum. Many then stepped inside to see what had been underway since Bush’s presidency ended in early January 1993.
An Avenger dive bomber similar to the one Bush was flying when he was shot down over the Pacific in World War II hangs from the ceiling. There’s also a letter that attendees can read that Bush wrote to his parents after he was shot down. Two of his crew members died, prompting him to write: “I sobbed while sitting in my raft.” A submarine rescued him, and a short video clip of that also is on display.
Much of the museum is filled with exhibits, information and pictures that the public rarely sees in person, including replicas of the Oval Office and a letter he wrote to his own children prior to the Persian Gulf War. His critical role in helping to end the Cold War is featured prominently in the 69,000-square-foot building where a section of the Berlin Wall stands. Toward the end is the “Gate of Kuwait,” a 100-year-old door framed in gold and inscribed with the names of America’s Gulf War dead — a gift of thanks from the Emir of Kuwait.
Many of the items on display are deeply personal, including a keepsake that Barbara Bush carried in her wallet for 40 years — a four-leaf clover — along with a newspaper clipping with her engagement photo and a gold charm in memory of daughter Robin, who died of cancer at the age of 3 while the couple lived in Midland.
Susie Cox, archivist at the museum, said in 2017 that an estimated 92,070 artifacts and 1,533 foreign head of state gifts are available at the museum; however, less than 75 percent of the items had been put on display so far.
More than 44 million pages of records, 2 million photographs, 2,100 hours of audio and 10,000 video recordings are filed there, according to library officials.
Well over 3,000 researchers have used the textual archives and audio-visual materials at the library, while countless others have used the online services for use in books and documentaries across the world. Onsite researchers have included Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, former chiefs of staff John Sununu and Gen. Brent Scowcroft, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham, and Bush’s daughter, Dorothy Bush Koch.
Bush, in his interview with The Eagle in the weeks leading up to the Bush Center’s opening in 1997, described his hopes for what visitors would find at the museum.
“I’d like for someone to walk out of there with a better understanding of what the 41st president was all about,” Bush said. “I’d like them to say, after looking through the museum, that they have a better understanding of the historic changes that took place during the four years I was president.”
As for how the success of his term will be measured, Bush said he would leave that up to the historians to decide.
“I’m confident they will get it right,” he said. “Scholars will go to the library and make up their own minds as to the success and failures.”