George H.W. Bush: 'The Fat Lady Sang. I Wept With Joy When George W. Became President.'

George W. Bush inaguration
U.S. President George W. Bush and his wife Laura walk down the steps of the Capitol with former President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary, following Bush's inauguration January 20, 2001. Reuters

The 2000 election between Republican candidate George W. Bush and Democratic Vice President Al Gore ended up in an ill tempered legal contest before the Supreme Court that put a severe strain on all involved.

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Here, George H.W.Bush, who called the 2000 contest the “hanging-chad-infected election,” recalls in a letter at the time to journalist Hugh Sidey how he and his wife Barbara burst into tears the moment his son George W. was declared President of the United States.  

December 16, 2000

Dear Hugh,

The fat lady sang. The ordeal ended. And now a huge new chapter in the lives of the Bush family opens up. But let me finish my “election watch” series with this the 41st and final entry.

The long, tortuous ordeal that began really early in the morning of November eighth ended when the U.S. Supreme Court took the action it did. When the Court finally ruled, [Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate] Al Gore’s team of able lawyers saw that it was over. The Vice President and his closest confidantes looked in every corner to find wiggle room, but they wisely concluded that he no longer had a chance. He decided to withdraw.

Right up until Gore spoke to the nation I was not sure in my own mind what he would say, how he would say it. His speech was absolute perfection. He did it with grace and dignity and a genuineness that enthralled the nation. I know how difficult it was for him to do what he did.

As soon as i saw him on the TV leaving the EOB [Eisenhower Executive Office Building, part of the White House complex], I called the White House switchboard and asked to be connected. I watched him get into his limo and a few minutes later the phone rang and it was the Vice President. I congratulated him, just one sentence or two, just a few words. I suddenly felt for him, saw him as a man whose disappointment had to be overpowering. I knew he must be hurting. He was very gracious. He thanked me. The conversation was over in a flash, but I suddenly felt quite different about Al Gore. The anger was gone, the competitive juices stopped flowing. I thought of Algore as two words (Al Gore) not one. I thought of his long years of service and of his family. I thought back to my own feelings of years before when I lost, when I had to go out and accept my defeat. He did it better than I did, and his ordeal had to be tougher because the election was so close. True I had to actually give up the presidency that he was now seeking, but still he had been in public life a long time and he and his family were shattered.

But then for Bar [Barbara Bush] and me, here in our little Houston house the scene shifted to Austin, Texas. I had been on the phone several times to George [W. Bush, the new president], his telling me what he planned to do in his speech, telling me of the setting designed to emphasize bi-partisanship. Incidentally I have had more phone conversations over the last month with George than one could imagine. During the ordeal, and even since, we talk all the time.

Barbara and I, alone here, climbed into bed to watch our son. Before he came on I flipped from channel to channel. The chattering class was busy. There wasn’t as much shouting, not quite as much; but there was lots of opining. Law professors and politicians past and present, news people—print and electronic, historians of note and of little note. They were all saying what George had to do. Declaring this the speech of his life. I could just feel the bar being raised. They properly credited Gore with giving a great, generous speech of healing. This they said made it tougher for George. They talked about expectations being low—“the man is not a great speaker, you know.” They set limits—things he had to do or must not do.

I don’t know why i did this to myself but it wasn’t for long and soon we settled on one channel and the announcer began to set the stage, telling America about the Texas Capitol, about the Democratic speaker, Pete Laney, who was to introduce George.

I saw a couple of shots of George and Laura holding hands. I saw in his posture, in the way he walked in his smile the same mannerisms and expressions we have known ever since he was a little boy.

Pete Laney, a good old boy from the panhandle, gave a wonderful introduction emphasizing that George had worked in a bi-partisan manner to get things done for Texas. And then he goes: “The 43rd president of the United states, George W. Bush.”

As the camera focused on George and Laura walking into the chamber my body was literally wracked with uncontrollable sobs. It just happened. No warning, no thinking that this might be emotional for a mother or dad to get through—just an eruption from deep within me where my body literally shook. Barbara cried, too. We held hands.

Just before he began to speak we saw in George’s eyes the emotion he was feeling. We know it so well. He did not “lose it”, but he was clearly moved and his mother and dad knew it for fact certain.

We listened to our own son give thanks to God and tell our divided country what he planned to do.

The speech was not a long one—13 minutes maybe. it was in my view just right. Later, on Jim Lehrer’s show david [David] Broder [Washington Post columnist and longtime friend of George H.W. Bush] and some pundit from the Weekly Standard would say it was not eloquent enough, but I was sure it was good.

When the speech ended I watched until George left the room. Then I called Logan [Walters], George’s assistant, on his mobile phone. Logan is never but a step or two away. I said “Logan, this is George Bush the elder, can you hand this phone to my boy?”

He did and George comes on the phone. “What did you think dad?” I told him how perfect I felt his speech was. I also told him I had lost it. I handed the phone to his mother who reiterated how well he had done, how proud we were.

We hung up. We watched as George left the Capitol and drove to the [executive] mansion. When he turned into the driveway we saw a new white curtain drawn across the front entrance—put there by the USSS [US Secret Service] so our son could exit his limo out of sight of the public. I knew this security procedure well. This was but one more manifestation of how his life had changed—will change in the days and years ahead.

May God give our son the strength he needs. May God protect the 43rd president of the United States of America.

Your friend, the proudest father in the whole wide world,


Taken from All The Best: My Life In Letters and Other Writings by President George H.W. Bush published by Scribner. © George H.W. Bush. All rights reserved. May not be republished without permission. 

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