Experiences at the Bush Presidential Library

During some recent time in College Station for business and pleasure, I had the honor and opportunity to visit the museum portion of the library of George H. W. Bush (41st President). This easily was the most visually pleasing corner of campus, and one well worth a visit for anyone interested in American history and the lives of presidents in particular. I had a hard time with lighting and composition for photography on this day, but have posted a few photos online which turned out acceptably.

The museum (external link) is airy, open and well designed on the inside, with chronological pods devoted to various stages of Bush’s life and accomplishments as a private businessman, war hero and civilian public servant, as well as sections featuring his ancestors, his wife Barbara, her literacy campaign, and a mock-up of the Oval Office. The building and its exhibits stand collectively as a dignified and educational testimonial to the life and times of Bush-41, without any unnecessary gaudiness or overstatement.

Since I briefly met and shook hands with the elder Bush while I was a teen and he still was VP, and since he was the first Presidential candidate for whom I ever voted (1988 elections), the place had some special meaning beyond its own outward merit. The man was and is a class act, a war hero, a respected leader free of ugly scandal, and a role model for the nearly lost art of statesmanship. As such, the visit to his and Barbara’s future gravesite (where they already moved the remains of their eldest daughter Robin, who died at age three of leukemia) was somber and just a little spooky.

I almost forgot to take a look. It began as a casual diversion on a whim of curiosity — an impulsive and unplanned stroll over a creek and down a sidewalk winding through the woods — but became much more. I stood for several moments at the wrought iron entrance to the plots, looking at the bronze memorial plaque with the empty spaces reserved for the years of the elder Bushes’ passing, then quietly surveying the scene all around. It was a warm, sunny, winter’s noontime, with not another person anywhere nearby, only some songbirds in the trees and a pair of crested caracaras soaring high above for company. The thought hit me that opportunities for such reflective solitude at this place will be extraordinarily uncommon once these graves contain Robin’s (and George W’s and Jeb’s) parents, and visitors collectively wear off a good deal of shoe rubber on the path leading there.

Then came the more over-arching realization, vivid as if I were watching it unfold in person or on TV. “A former American President whom I admire is going to be buried right here someday,” I thought, with a jolt of empathetic grief foreshadowing the eventuality. Maybe it’s because it has been just a few short years since I closed the casket lid over my own dad and then watched his burial, but I could imagine vividly — in the form of a virtual video playing in my head — the sad, but eventual and inevitable, occasions. Our current President and his siblings, clad in dark suits and dresses, accompanied by spouses, kids and grandkids, in the darkest throes of grief, will walk over the creek too, down that same winding path and over this very spot. They will lay a beloved parent to rest, and in the case of their father, amidst a military funeral honors detail, Taps wailing from that solitary bugle, the flag folded and presented, perhaps with millions of worldwide admirers watching on TV if broadcasting is permitted. Even if not, photos will appear later, followed by many thousands of visitors in person in ensuing days and years. “All of that grief and mourning will be focused right here where I stand alone,” I realized.

That was a rather potent and unanticipated reaction for a little side trek that started out as almost an afterthought.

I am not a depressed or morose person by nature, not in the least. Still, that scene haunted me off and on for much of the way home. It probably will again when that time does come, watching that broadcast or seeing those photos from what is now a very familiar and unambiguously evocative place. Let’s hope that scene waits many, many years to take place.

Fortunately, the library and museum stand nearby as a much grander and more prominent presence, serving as documentation and commemoration of the former President and his life. So in that sense, the unobtrusive, almost unmarked path through the woods and to the graves is a metaphor for how a celebration of one’s time on Earth should not be overshadowed by the grief marking the end of that life.


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