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Welcome to Arkansas, Mr. President! (Part 12)

Old State House Museum - Monday, May 27, 2019

image courtesy of the Arkansas Democrat GazetteLike Father, like son. Both Presidents Bush had longstanding ties to Arkansas and it was reflected in their travels as well as in their relationships to the people of the state. And over the years, electoral setbacks did not diminish the respect Arkansans held for both the 41st and 43rd Presidents.

Massachusetts-born and Connecticut-bred George Herbert Walker Bush was the last bonafide war hero to occupy the Oval Office. Enlisting in the Navy on his 18th birthday, he became a naval aviator, taking training for aircraft carrier operations aboard the USS Sable. Shot down after an attack on the Japanese installations on Chichijima on September 2, 1944, Bush spent four hours in his inflated life raft after suffering the loss of his crew. By the end of the war he had flown 58 combat missions for which he received the Distinguished Flying Cross, three Air Medals, and the Presidential Unit Citation awarded to the crew of the USS San Jacinto. After the war, Bush enrolled at Yale where he captained the Yale baseball team and played in the first two College World Series as a left-handed first baseman. After graduation, married and with a family, Bush saw opportunities in the oil fields of west Texas and eventually founded a company that specialized in offshore drilling. He became involved in Republican politics and in 1966 was elected to the first of two terms in Congress, and later served in a series of appointed posts before become Ronald Reagan’s Vice President in 1981.

George Walker Bush, known as “Junior” and more commonly, “Dubya,” was born in Massachusetts but raised in Texas, becoming a “Texian to his toenails.” Like his father, he was educated at Yale and went on to earn an MBA degree from Harvard. He is the only president to have earned an MBA. Serving in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War, he was not called up for active duty. Like his father, he went into the oil business and later purchased an interest in the Texas Rangers baseball team and served as its managing partner before being elected to the first of two terms as Governor of Texas in 1994.

Bush the Elder (or “Bush 41”) first visited the state to commemorate an activity that constantly tied both states’ teams in mortal combat: football. Terry Frei, a longtime sportswriter for newspapers in Greeley and Denver, Colorado, recounted this exchange in his 2002 book, Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming, involving the future President as he arrived alongside his friend, Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt, with President Richard Nixon’s party at Fayetteville’s Razorback Stadium for the 1969 “Game of the Century” between the Arkansas Razorbacks and the Texas Longhorns: “Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt, R-Ark., who also was a World War II pilot and was Bush’s close friend, was there as well. As shown on the ABC broadcast, the Nixon party landed on the practice field next to Razorback Stadium just as the game was starting. When the politicians walked briskly toward the stadium, Bush and Hammerschmidt were together, shown laughing. They were just off Nixon’s right shoulder, a step behind the president. Hammerschmidt was wearing red and advertising his loyalty to the Razorbacks. He later told me that when he laughed, he was reacting to the cheers from the stadium. He remembered telling his friend, “----, Bush, we’ve already scored!” In fact, the Razorbacks had recovered a Texas fumble on the second play from scrimmage. Of course, that trend didn’t last that day, and the Texas visitors, including the politicians, had the last laugh. He made numerous succeeding trips to Arkansas, one of the most notable being an October 1988 rally in downtown Little Rock in what was then Metrocentre Mall at Capitol and Main Streets. An estimated 20,000 people crowded downtown for a glimpse of the President-to-be.

Like his father, the 43rd President had numerous visits to Arkansas, and was well-regarded both personally and at the polls. But probably his best known visit was a post-presidential one. On July 15, 2016, the William J. Clinton School of Public Service hosted Former Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and three members of the Little Rock Nine: Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown-Trickey and Ernest Green, spoke about leadership and the importance of civil discourse during a ceremony at Little Rock Central High School. Yet three hours into the event, a thunderstorm suddenly ended it. According to a report from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Brian Fanney, “Tornado sirens sounded as the storm rapidly approached and caused lights to flicker in the school's auditorium….and event organizers asked attendees to head to the school's lower levels. Later, pieces of roofing were seen blowing off the building.” According to some in attendance, the speakers milled about and conversed with guests during the time they spent in the school’s basement. Speaking to the Presidential Leadership Scholars Program began by Clinton and Bush, Blair, in his first visit to Arkansas, referred to the "baking heat." "I didn't think there was anything that could make me feel affectionate towards the British weather," he said to a laugh from the crowd. Bush urged adherence to traditional institutions:"My advice is to strengthen the institutions that have made us a remarkable country," agreeing with Clinton's assessment that growing inequality around the world was making it more difficult for people in rich and poor countries to find common ground.

Both father and son Bush have had active post-presidencies in the role of elder statesmen, and George H.W. Bush’s passing on November 30, 2018 brought an outpouring of sadness among Arkansans, but admiration of a life spent in service to the American people.