Bush looks ahead, preparing for life after White House

November 13, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

BOCA GRANDE, Fla. -- On a bitter January day in 1969, a rejected former president, Lyndon B. Johnson, stood at Andrews Air Force Base, preparing for his last official departure from Washington.

A group of loyal Cabinet members and political allies had passed up the inauguration of Richard M. Nixon to bid LBJ farewell as he headed home to Texas. With them was a young, second-term congressman from Houston, the lone Republican among those once-powerful Democrats.

It was George Bush.

"I shook his hand and wished him a safe journey," Mr. Bush wrote sometime later, recalling the moment. "He nodded, took a few steps toward the ramp, then turned, looked back at me, and said 'thanks for coming.' "

Twenty-four years later, Mr. Bush's own fortunes suffered the same numbing reversal that humbled his fellow Texan. Now the 41st president of the United States prepares for his own transition to private life, watching each day as all but the most formal authority of his office fades.

To be sure, he has suffered defeats before. In the U.S. Senate campaigns in Texas in 1964 and 1970. In the presidential campaign of 1980. But none carried the same sense of finality that came with his loss to Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

As his own departure on Jan. 20, 1993, draws near, the defeated president searches for meaning in the loss and direction for his future.

Here, where sunny mornings give way each day to overcast afternoons, threatening clouds, and stormy evenings, it is his time to do one thing, above all else, says a close friend:

L "He [is] going to have to find a purpose, what his role is."

From the beginning there has been, in public, a grace in loss -- a characteristic that Mr. Bush was taught from the earliest days of childhood was as important as grace in victory.

But the world he contemplates from the shores of the Gulf of Mexico is a new one for the 68-year-old politician.

"He's in the realm of the unexpected. He's adjusting to it, but he's wondering why, because it wasn't inevitable," said the long-time friend and adviser. "Right now, he's in a kind of discombobulated mood."

"He has been up and he has been down. He is fairly resilient. He is basically an optimist," he said, and in the end, Mr. Bush will not take the loss "in a bitter way."

Still, he added, "from what I see, he is not in a good George Bush mood . . . I think he thinks this thing was winnable. Let the wounds heal, and around Christmas time, he can be more upbeat about it."

His wife, Barbara, already has begun to make the transition, the president said.

"She's getting ready to shift gears, and my advice to those of you who are friends [is] give her wide berth, which is what I'm trying to do around the White House there, because she's a bundle of energy, shifting gears from the present into the future. And that's the way it ought to be," he said.

For his part, the president said, haltingly, that he would "head off for a little vacation and get a little -- a little rest and think about what has been and then what -- what's about to be."

When he arrived at Fort Myers, he walked alone down the steps of Air Force One, the jumbo jet that only two weeks ago had been packed with aides and advisers trailing him in a frantic re-election -- around the country. His once-determined stride had been replaced by a stroll.

During a vacation one summer in Kennebunkport, Maine, his string of bad luck trying to snare a bluefish became running front-page story.

Now, he can catch one fish or a dozen. It matters not at all.

As his presidency winds down, he and his wife are but tourists, relegated in a front-page headline of the local Sun Herald to a gently derisive, if slightly elevated, status: "The First Snowbirds."

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