George H.W. Bush, who was the nation’s longest-lived president and whose public service career spanned more than five decades, is remembered by Nebraskans and others as a man of dignity who treated people with respect.
Bush, 94, died Friday.
Bush was a familiar figure to many Midlanders, having campaigned in the Iowa presidential caucuses in both 1980 and 1988. He also visited Nebraska at least six times as vice president or president, campaigning for Republicans or raising cash for his presidential bids.
He was the type of guy who once took former Nebraska Gov. Kay Orr on an impromptu tour of his then-vice presidential living quarters to show off his wife’s “hooking” skills in making a rug.
Bush was also the man who returned a signed copy of an Omaha World-Herald article to a teenager in 1987. That year, then-17-year-old Jeremy Fitzpatrick had persuaded his stepfather to take him to a Bush rally in Omaha, where he was interviewed by a reporter. His mother mailed the article to Bush, and the presidential candidate returned it with his autograph.
“What I remember about Bush, looking back on it now — and it’s influenced by the world we live in today — is that Bush was very dignified and incredibly competent. He had been in government his whole life,” said Fitzpatrick, an Omaha attorney who is now a registered Democrat.
On Saturday, Midlands political leaders recalled and paid tribute to Bush.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said, “President George H.W. Bush will be remembered as a devoted husband, loving father, committed statesman, and a great man of faith. From his service in the military to his work promoting volunteerism, Bush 41 dedicated his life to his country.”
Ricketts and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds both ordered that flags be flown at half-staff for 30 days.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said, “A member of the Greatest Generation, President Bush humbly served the country he loved. George H.W. Bush was a patriot, a leader, and a decent man who had a noble spirit.”
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said, “President George H.W. Bush served the American people with honor, diligence, and integrity — from his Naval service to the Oval Office. His family knows well the sacrifices required of public service and they have the gratitude of our entire country.”
Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa also touched on various aspects of the former president’s career, saying “He served with distinction as a naval aviator in World War II, flying 58 combat missions. ... He helped keep our nation safe as the head of the Central Intelligence Agency. ... He will be remembered not only for his professional achievements, but for the warmth and kindness he showed to his friends and political opponents alike.”
And Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said, “George H.W. Bush was committed to furthering the ideals that this country was built upon, in a way that will transcend his life. He showed us that relationships matter, people matter, freedom matters.”
In 1980, running for president against Ronald Reagan, Bush focused his attention on winning the Iowa caucuses. He beat Reagan in Iowa that year, but eventually lost to the Gipper in the primaries. Bush then joined Reagan as his running mate.
Bush failed to reignite his love affair with Iowa when he ran as Reagan’s successor eight years later. He came in third in the 1988 caucuses, behind Bob Dole and Pat Robertson. But the Iowa blow did not prove fatal. Bush later won the nomination.
Orr was governor when Bush was elected president in 1988. She described him as a “sweet man” with impeccable manners who loved to play horseshoes on the White House lawn.
She vividly recalls the day that she and her husband showed up early for a reception in 1987 at the vice presidential residence. Bush kindly greeted them at the door and, after some conversation, took the Orrs upstairs to the Bush living quarters to see the rug that his wife was making.
Orr said she could see that the beds were unmade and that a vaporizer was in the bedroom. On the way back downstairs, the trio ran into Barbara Bush, who was dismayed that her husband had taken them upstairs.
“Oh, George, it’s a mess up there,” Barbara Bush said.
Orr found the couple to be down-to-earth.
“They’re special people, but so ordinary in so many ways,” Orr said.
Former World-Herald staff writers David Hendee and Robynn Tysver contributed to this report.