Last week we bid farewell to President George H. W. Bush–“41” as he’s fondly called.
History may regard him as the best one-term president to ever to serve in the White House. He was certainly one of the best prepared. Bush was a successful businessman, a Congressman, UN ambassador, envoy to China, director of the CIA, chairman of the Republican National Committee, as two-term vice president of the United States. A solid resume, for sure.
In eulogies, he was no longer a “wimp” as political foes had described him, but the nation’s Dad—a Mr. Rogers kind of guy trying to be John Wayne. True enough. As one of the nation’s youngest Navy pilots, he flew 58 combat missions and narrowly escaped death when he was shot down over the Pacific during World War II.
As president, he urged us to make America a “kinder and gentler nation.” Even in 1989, many scoffed at such an old-fashioned notion, much less his idealistic “thousand points of light,” a phrase he used to promote volunteerism.
The president’s proclivity for writing thank-you notes endeared him to friends, family, associates and political foes. The humble act of expressing gratitude on paper seems such a quaint custom these days, yet I’m willing to bet when most of us see a hand-written envelope in the mail, it’s the first thing we open.
The image of Bush’s note to incoming President Clinton in 1993 made the rounds on Facebook and Instagram last week. Though hurting from a crushing defeat by Bill Clinton, Bush garnered the grace to write the future president a note and leave it in the Oval Office.
“You will be our president when you read this note. I wish you well, I wish your family well….Your success is now our country’s success,” Bush wrote.
Over the years I’ve felt a connection to President Bush, not just for his steering us through the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Not just because I voted for him, but something more frivolous: I once saw him in person. It was during a whistle stop in 1992 at Gastonia. We took off work and took our son, then a second-grader, out of class to see the president. What we saw was a glimpse from the train, a fleeting wave to the crowd. A chance to say we’d seen the President, a brush with history.
I admired Barbara Bush’s no-nonsense approach to life, her promotion of books and literacy. I loved her self-deprecating humor. She refused to dye her hair. She admitted to being a size 14. She said she wore her famous pearls to hide the wrinkles on her neck. She loved dogs. She was everybody’s grandmother.
In 2014 we toured “41’s” Library in College Park, TX, where I spotted a wooden plaque in the gift shop. On it was carved the letters “CAVU.” I knew this acronym in the book, All the Best, My Life in Letters and Other Writings, a collection of Bush’s personal correspondence.
CAVU stands for “Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited”—Bush’s motto adopted from his days as a Navy pilot. CAVU struck a chord with me is because my own father was a pilot. I grew up hearing a lot about the “ceiling” and weather being “clear as a bell” or the dreaded “pea soup.”
President Bush described CAVU in his own words as “the kind of weather we Navy pilots wanted when we were to fly off our carrier in the Pacific.” The notion that the ceiling is unlimited meant anything is possible with vision. One should live life to the fullest. A stark illustration came on his 90th birthday, when he amazingly parachuted from a plane. Hardly a wimp.
Bush once explained that CAVU also described his own life as it had been over time and as it was in retirement. Life was good because he looked at the glass as half full instead of half empty. Barriers and boundaries are all too often ones we create for ourselves. CAVU may well describe the essence of the man George H. W. Bush, and his vision that he had for his own life as well as that of his children, his grandchildren and his country. For him, the sky was the limit. Bush, in fact, had attached a CAVU plaque on his home at Kennebunkport, ME, a reminder that a can-do spirit is everything.
Appropriately, it was President Bush 41 who signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act, prohibiting discrimination based on disability.
The CAVU plaque I bought in Texas has hung in my home office for more than four years now, and so far no one has asked what it means. If someone does, I’ll have to tell them about President Bush and my Dad being pilots and how having a vision of where you’re going can help you avoid the pea soup.