Emotion and grace mark Bush's exit for private life

January 21, 1993|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- George Bush said goodbye yesterday to 30 years in public life, with a smile on his lips and little hint of the pain he must have felt at the parting.

He turned over his home, his office, his country to a competitor who bested him in a bitter struggle for a job he loved. And Mr. Bush had to stand as chief witness to this transfer of his power to President Clinton, as if blessing it by his silent acquiescence.

But it was an exit with grace, typical of a man who manages to combine ruthless politics with flawless manners and uncommon kindness.

He played the gracious and talkative host to Mr. Clinton at the White House yesterday morning. He winked and grinned and flashed his trademark thumbs-up sign whenever cameras were in view. He followed the tradition of leaving Mr. Clinton a note on his new desk in the Oval Office.

The former president appeared to choke up only once, when he and his wife, Barbara, were met at Andrews Air Force Base shortly after the inauguration by several thousand friends, former aides and ordinary Americans who wanted to bid them farewell.

"You didn't have to come all the way out here," Mr. Bush said in a comment directed to wheelchair-user Michael Deland, his chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality. But the remark was meant to show his gratitude to everyone who had ignored his request to let him slip away quietly.

When he climbed the steps of the Boeing 747 deluxe Air Force jet no longer known as Air Force One unless Mr. Clinton is aboard, Mr. Bush didn't bound up quickly as usual, two steps at a time. He moved slowly, savoring the moment.

He and Mrs. Bush turned to the crowd, waved several times with long elaborate gestures and were gone. The plane took off south, then turned west on its way to Houston, where Mr. Bush began his political career in 1962 as a Republican county chairman.

"Of course, it was emotional," said Prescott Bush, who came to Washington to spend the last few hours of his younger brother's presidency with him. "How could it not be? But I think he's in great shape."

George Herbert Walker Bush had a preview of yesterday's events 24 years ago when, as a young Republican congressman, he skipped the inauguration of Richard M. Nixon to join a handful of dignitaries watching former President Lyndon B. Johnson leave Andrews on his way home to Texas.

"This was a president who not many years before had moved through crowds with outstretched hands, pressing the flesh," Mr. Bush wrote in his 1987 autobiography, "Looking Forward," recalling the "poignancy of the moment."

"He loved politics, thrived on power," Mr. Bush wrote of Johnson. "But because of Vietnam, the cheering had stopped, and he was going back to Texas a defeated man."

Mr. Bush has often felt like a defeated man himself since the Nov. 3 election. Sen. Charles S. Robb and his wife, Lynda, Johnson's daughter, had been expected at Andrews yesterday to return Mr. Bush's kindness to her father, but they didn't make it.

Republican Rep. Sam Johnson of Dallas turned out instead, the only member of Congress to see Mr. Bush off.

"George Bush is a Texan," he said. "I figured he needed a Texan to tell him goodbye."

Mr. Bush still doesn't know exactly what he is going to do with himself in Houston.

"You see my problem is I thought I was going to win, so I didn't do any defense planning," he told U.S. soldiers in Somalia who asked him about his plans during his New Year's Eve visit there.

He will have a small office staff to help him with correspondence and other duties of ex-presidents. He will also be working on setting up his presidential library at Texas A&M University.

Mr. Bush is sure to write his memoirs. Other offers for his services are pending, say friends who won't describe the offers.

The former president has promised Mr. Clinton he will not be critical of him and has said that he plans to maintain a low profile for at least a year, aides say.

"I hope I'll be treated as a private citizen by my neighbors in Houston," Mr. Bush said last weekend. "I'm not looking to sit at the head table; I'm not looking to have press conferences. . . . There's no point trying to continue something that isn't."

So it's goodbye to Poppy and Bar, so long to Millie, Ranger and the grandchildren, au revoir to Kennebunkport, Houston and Beeville, speedboats, aerobic golf, pork rinds, country music and preppie watchbands. All the personal touches and affectations of the Bush era at the White House have been replaced.

The last president to come of age during World War II -- a war hero, in fact -- left the Oval Office yesterday to a new generation.

But Mr. Bush was not about to take the venomous advice of an Iraqi newspaper, Al-Jumhouriya, that he commit suicide.

Instead, when the ex-president disappeared inside the jet yesterday, he joined a flying cocktail party with most of his oldest and dearest friends on board.

As the door was closing, it seemed possible to make out the faint tinkling of a steward mixing up of the president's favorite drink, a vodka martini on the rocks.

"He's looking forward to a new life," said Bush press secretary Marlin Fitzwater as he rushed up the steps the plane to join the party.

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