Campus Life

Remembering The Character Of George H.W. Bush

In a discussion at Texas A&M, authors Jon Meacham and Jean Becker reflected on the qualities that defined Bush as part of the centennial celebrations for the former president.
By Caitlin Clark, Texas A&M University Division of Marketing & Communications June 12, 2024

Authors Jean Becker and Jon Meacham speak from chairs on a stage at an event.
Jean Becker, former chief of staff for George H.W. Bush, and author Jon Meacham reflect on the 41st president’s legacy during his 100th birthday celebration on Wednesday at Texas A&M University.

Photo by Butch Ireland


Anniversaries are about more than just the person being commemorated — they tell us about how we see ourselves at that moment, Pulitzer-Prize winning author and presidential historian Jon Meacham said Wednesday on what would have been President George H.W. Bush’s 100th birthday.

Speaking to a crowd gathered at the Annenberg Presidential Conference Center on the Texas A&M University campus, Meacham said there’s not been a single moment in American history when the country has been more in need of what the 41st president represented than now. During Bush’s remarks in 1990 commemorating the centennial of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, he quoted a motto etched onto a plaque that sat on Eisenhower’s desk: “Gently in manner, strong in deed.”

It’s hard to imagine a better description of Bush, Meacham said.

Meacham spoke alongside Jean Becker, Bush’s chief of staff for nearly 25 years, as part of a three-day centennial celebration hosted by the George & Barbara Bush Foundation. In addition to sharing some of their favorite memories about the president, the importance of character and the qualities that defined Bush were the focus of much of their discussion.

Bush, known for his humility, likely “would not approve” of the amount of attention being paid to him this week, Becker said. The former president’s reluctance toward discussing himself and his legacy was exemplified by an anecdote Becker shared about a visit Bush made to his presidential library and museum in College Station before it opened in 1997.

Bush was invited to walk through the library one last time to point out any changes he wanted made before the opening. “In the car on the drive back to Houston, he turned to me and said, ‘Jean, I have a big problem with the museum,’” she said. “And he said, ‘Jean, it’s too much about me.’”

Meacham said Bush had a similar reaction after he read the former president a draft of his eulogy.

“The eyes were very attentive. He was listening to every possible bit, let’s be clear,” Meacham said. “I got to the end, and he said, ‘That’s great — awful lot about me.’”

Meacham, who wrote the 2015 biography “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush,” eulogized Bush at his funeral following his death in November 2018.

Meacham said Bush’s humility wasn’t an affectation. But he also acknowledged the complications of a man who wanted to serve in a subtle and decent way, but “also wanted to bend the arc of history in the direction he thought it should go.”

“If we overly canonize him, he loses the capacity to teach,” Meacham said, adding that it’s important to acknowledge that Bush was fallible.

Bush represented a man who was driven by ambition, but who ultimately put service above self, Meacham said. He also warned against “overly romanticizing a past in a way that prevents us from rising to the occasion.” When putting together his new book, “The Call To Serve,” Meacham said he was thinking about what Bush’s legacy means at this time.

“The easy answer is the climate,” he said. “Here’s this decent, gentlemanly figure who represented a long-ago order. All true. But it was 20 minutes ago — it’s not impossible to recover if we summon the same reserves of character. Because character, as the Greeks taught us, is destiny.”

Becker, who is also promoting a new book, “Character Matters,” said she’s often pessimistically asked, “Where’s the next George Bush?” This outlook is a mistake, she said.

“The people who think there are no more George Bushes, yeah, there are,” Becker said. “You just have to vote for them. You all control this. Quit voting for people who don’t have character. … The people are out here, and they’re willing to serve. We just have to follow his example of ‘do what’s right for the country.’ Not what’s right for you, not what’s right for the party, but what’s right for the country.”

Becker and Meacham’s panel was attended by hundreds of members of the public, as well as members of the Bush family and alumni of his administration. Becker said the former president would have loved that the centennial celebration served as a reunion.

“He loved all these people. The party part of it he would love, and seeing everybody, but he definitely would complain to me and Jon, ‘Quit talking about me, talk about other people,’” Becker said.

While Becker said Bush hated discussing “the L word” — his legacy — the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M “is his legacy, and it was really important to him.”

“He would be so proud of the Bush School graduates, because they’re doing exactly what he wanted them to do,” she said. “They’re everywhere — the State Department, particularly, the CIA, city managers. They’re doing everything, and he would be very proud.”

When it came time to choose a location for his presidential library after Bush left the White House, there was interest from several schools, including the University of Houston and his alma mater, Yale University, Becker said. But even though Bush did not attend Texas A&M, the university “had his heart,” she said.

“He loved service. That was his life motto, and he fell in love with A&M the first time he came and gave a speech here,” Becker said. “It was sort of a slam dunk that it would be here, and he loved it up here.”

The “41@100” celebrations continue Thursday with the grand opening of the Marine One/4141 Locomotive Pavilion. The new 29,000-square-foot building at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library & Museum features the retired Marine One helicopter used frequently by Bush during his time in office, as well as the Union Pacific 4141 locomotive that led Bush’s funeral train from Houston to his final resting place on the library grounds. The building will be open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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