A war hero, a congressman, the director of the CIA and vice president for eight years. In the weeks following the passing of former President George H.W. Bush, the American people and the Elon University community are remembering him not only for his credentials but also for his character.
President Bush visited Burlington in 1992 during his re-election campaign before coming to Elon’s campus in 2001 to give a convocation address. During the latter visit, he stayed in Maynard House with the Lambert family.
“I don't think he was one of those people that had a private persona that was different than his public persona. He was a genuinely good guy, and I think that was civil and caring and considerate of others,” said President Emeritus Leo Lambert.
Elon’s president hosts a presidential houseguest
Lambert’s family enjoyed quality time with the 41st U.S. president at the expense of reorganizing their sleeping quarters. During Bush’s stay, Lambert and his wife Laurie moved all of their belongings out of the master bedroom because Secret Service deemed the usual guest suite not secure enough and wanted President Bush to stay on the second floor.
The 41st U.S. President even gave a tribute to the disruption at the beginning of his convocation speech in April 2001.
“They swept in to the beautiful Maynard House right over there, swept right out of his bedroom, bathroom, closet, and we’re enjoying it. Thank you sir, we might not leave,” Bush joked.
“We were honored to have President Bush sleep in our bed,” Lambert said, laughing.
Bush’s entourage of Secret Service security also caused quite an obstacle course for Lambert’s daughter Callie, who was just learning to drive at the time. Lambert recalled he would drive with her to school in the morning.
“The whole street and the driveway is lined with Secret Service vehicles and police vehicles. And she's trying to weave my old Volvo between all these vehicles,” Lambert said. “And I said, 'Callie, if you can maneuver this, your driver's exam is going to seem really easy.'”
Bush visits campus
Lambert wasn’t the only one that got a personal interaction with the president. When he was on campus, President Bush had an open Q&A with the students and even worked out at the university gym.
“A student came up to us afterwards and said he was on his cell phone calling his mom, saying, 'You'll never guess who's on the treadmill next to me,'” Lambert recalled.
But Lambert says the highlight of his visit was when one Elon student asked why Bush lost the re-election.
“It wasn't a disrespectful question, but it was pretty direct,” Lambert said. “I just remember the sheer honesty of President Bush's answer, and he didn't try to pin the blame on anybody else. He took responsibility.”
At the Republican National Convention in 1988, Bush uttered one of his most famous quotes: "Read my lips, no new taxes." During his term, the president did indeed end up implementing new taxes, which was used against him during his re-election campaign.
“There was a big economic boom later on in the 90s, and [Bush] said, 'But I just couldn't communicate that to the public, and so I lost my job,'” Lambert said. “It was such a disarmingly honest, sincere, forthright answer. I was just stunned, or struck by it. I'll never forget it in my whole life.”
Lambert also said he highly respected Bush’s decision to go back on his promise because raising taxes was what Lambert said the country needed at the time.
“When you place your political interests secondary to the interests of the country, I think that's one of the highlights of his presidency,” Lambert said. “And I'm not sure you see such courageous acts of leadership so much anymore.”
Lambert wants current politicians to take a lesson from their past president.
“I think the vitriol that we see in politics today is really harmful to our nation,” Lambert said, adding that he was disappointed in how polarized the current political climate was. “[Bush] became great friends with President Clinton, the man who beat him. And that's a model for us.”
When looking at lessons for current Elon students, he says Bush teaches us something easy and practical.
“One of the most powerful, important acts that you can do in your life on a regular basis is to say thank you to people and write notes to people. It takes a few minutes, and it has an enormous impact on other people's lives. And he was a master at it,” Lambert said.
Knowing his character
University archivist Linda Lashendock worked as a CNN White House producer during Bush’s term. Reflecting on her time covering the White House, she says the dynamic between politicians and press has definitely changed.
“Oh my gosh, it was certainly not like today,” Lashendock said. “[President Bush] was very respectful of the press, and he knew that they had a job to do. You have a job to do. I have a job to do. I might not always like you, but I want to respect you.”
While covering President Bush, Lashendock went through a difficult divorce. She remembers that during a particularly rough patch, Bush went out of his way to comfort her.
“He said, 'Linda, I'm worried about you. You are going to be OK. You're smart, you're talented and you're beautiful,'” Lashendock said. “And he kept tabs on me for the next probably three years to make sure that I was okay. That's how humble he was.”
Lashendock remembers Bush would joke around with the press during downtime. She says what set him apart from other presidents was that he took the time to know everyone’s name, down to his servers in a D.C. restaurant.
“He would always ask the individuals for the first names, and it was remarkable, and he remembered that,” Lashendock said.