Trouble subdued at Bush ship christening

October 08, 2006|By James Gerstenzang | James Gerstenzang,Los Angeles Times

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, the most famous father-son act in American politics since the Adams family, saluted each other at a rain-drenched, shore-side ceremony yesterday, as an aircraft carrier was christened in the name of the father, a naval aviator who survived a direct strike by Japanese anti-aircraft fire over the Pacific 62 years ago.

Doro Bush Koch, the former president's daughter and the current president's sister, smashed a bottle of sparkling wine against the bow of the vessel, and declared: "I hereby christen thee USS George H.W. Bush. May God bless all who sail her."

There were Bush family, friends, political supporters, longtime advisers and members of the administration of the first President Bush, some of whom also served in the second Bush presidency.

But against the backdrop of the reunion on a barge tied up at the bow of the vast vessel ran an undercurrent of the troubles facing the present Bush administration.

On the stage just yards from the ship's bow were two Presidents Bush, the current and former first ladies and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, whose direction of the war is drawing increasing criticism.

Next to Rumsfeld was Sen. John W. Warner, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman from Virginia who became last week the most prominent Republican officeholder to publicly question the course of the Iraq war.

In the audience was Colin L. Powell, the retired Army general who served the first President Bush as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the second as secretary of state. His disagreements with the current president over the Iraq war are slowly surfacing.

Two other key members of the first Bush foreign policy team - former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Bush's secretary of State and White House chief of staff, James A. Baker III - were seated nearby.

Vice President Dick Cheney, who was the first President Bush's defense secretary, was not present.

Without mentioning the war but sending an unmistakable signal, the senior Bush declared: "I am very proud of our president. I support him in every single way, with every fiber in my body."

He did not, however, say he agreed with every decision his son had made.

The ceremony took place against a backdrop of renewed questions about the complicated relationship of the father and son, famously competitive and proud and yet never shy about demonstrating their love for each other, as they did again yesterday.

The most recent questions were prompted by a report that the elder Bush and his wife, Barbara, felt that their son had taken the wrong approach in dealing with Saddam Hussein and Iraq.

Bob Woodward, the author and Washington Post editor, writes in his new book, State of Denial, that Barbara Bush said her husband was "losing sleep" over Iraq. In addition, Woodward also wrote that Scowcroft, a close friend of the senior Bush, thought that the younger Bush's presidency was, in some respects, a "disaster."

White House officials have bristled at the idea that there is any daylight between the father and son on Iraq policy - or on anything, for that matter, except a competitive round of golf or a chase for the bluefish that run in the Gulf of Maine off the family compound in Kennebunkport.

Without specifying to which statements he was referring, Scowcroft moved earlier in the week to distance himself from the Woodward book. In a declaration distributed by the White House, Scowcroft said that statements attributed to him in Woodward's book "did not and never could have come from me."

Notwithstanding possible differences among those at the gathering, the day belonged to the senior Bush and his wife, with plenty of family respect and a dose of teasing. He was choked up as he recalled reading, as an officer and thus a censor, the letters that crewmen with whom he served sent home during World War II - and a bit irreverent when a thunderclap interrupted his speech and he said: "I'm finishing, Lord. I am finishing, Lord."

The younger President Bush said of the new vessel: "She is unrelenting, she is unshakable, she is unyielding, she is unstoppable." He added, "As a matter of fact, [it] probably should have been named the Barbara Bush."

For the senior Bush, the moment was especially fitting, given his Navy service. On Sept. 2, 1944, he set off from the deck of the carrier San Jacinto to attack Japanese installations on the Pacific island of Chichi Jima, north of the equator.

His Avenger was hit by Japanese fire, and with his engine aflame he managed to drop his bombs over the target and fly several miles off shore before bailing out.

Two others in the plane died.

He spent several hours in an inflated raft in the ocean before he was rescued by the submarine Finback.

James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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