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Remembering George H.W. Bush's Lighter Sides

Dec 3, 2018
Originally published on December 3, 2018 9:30 am

Since his death on Friday at the age of 94, George H.W. Bush has been remembered for his decades in the public eye as a congressman, diplomat, CIA director, vice president, and of course, president.

His death has also brought about countless remembrances of Bush's more private side, and his life as a husband, father, grandfather and friend. These stories have offered new — and sometimes surprising — insights into the character of the nation's 41st president, and some of the hobbies, people and events that shaped him.

As the nation prepares to mark four days of ceremony in memory of Bush, we look back at a few of the more unexpected sides of his life.

Tossing horseshoes

John F. Kennedy had sailing. Barack Obama had basketball. For George H.W. Bush, it was horseshoes. Bush was a member of the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association, and his affinity for the game was so strong, he had horseshoe courts installed at the White House and Camp David. He once shared a game with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, and when Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip visited the U.S. in 1991, they brought with them a special gift for the president: a silver-plated horseshoe set.

"He was competitive. If you tried to play horseshoes with him and you'll see how competitive he can be," Colin Powell, who served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Bush, told NPR.

White House visitors would learn that lesson the hard way. In 1992, Bush hosted the Washington Redskins to celebrate their win in that year's Super Bowl, and as mlb.com reported, the team stayed late into the night playing a loud, and competitive game of horseshoes.

"The horseshoe tournament came down to two players against President Bush and his partner, a Secret Service agent," former team general manager Charley Casserly told the site.

With the game on the line, the final throw came down to President Bush.

"We're thinking, `Wow, there's some pressure on the president," Casserly said. "Then it hits us what we've just said. Pressure? Are you kidding me? This guy knows what real pressure is."

Casserly said the president "threw a ringer to win the tournament...No one believes the story, but I was there. It happened."

The ballplayer

Baseball was a lifelong love affair for Bush, who credited his playing days at Yale with helping him succeed in both politics and in life.

"I know in politics, it helps to be competitive and it helps to learn about sportsmanship and practice sportsmanship," Bush told Sports Illustrated in 2007. "So I found that my modest baseball career at Yale was extraordinarily helpful to me when I got into politics or got out into life in business."

Bush wasn't half bad. In 76 games at Yale, he had a batting average of .224 with one home run, according to the Society of American Baseball Research. It was at Yale where Bush, who was affectionately known by his teammates as "Poppy," met a living legend of the game: Babe Ruth.

Bush's passion for baseball continued well past college. In the summer of 1984, Bush, by then the vice president, played in and old-timers' game, and managed to hit a single into left-center field off of former major league pitcher Milt Pappas.

As president, Bush kept his first-baseman's mitt from college in a drawer in the Oval Office. He is also credited with being the first commander-in-chief to throw out the ceremonial first pitch of a Major League Baseball game from the mound — before that, his predecessors tossed it from a front-row seat in the stands.

After losing re-election in 1992, he became a fixture at Houston Astros games alongside his wife, Barbara Bush. She would keep a scorebook, and he would mingle with fans, players and coaches. It was in Houston where Bush made his last public appearance on a baseball diamond — when he accompanied his son during the ceremonial first pitch for Game 5 of the 2017 World Series.

The skydiver

As a young pilot in the Navy during World War II, Bush's plane was hit by Japanese ground fire during a bombing run, forcing him to bail out over the Pacific Ocean. It was hardly the last time he would leap from a plane.

Skydiving became a hobby for Bush, one that he used to mark his 75th, 80th, 85th and 90th birthdays. In all, Bush took eight jumps over the course of his life, his office told USA Today in 2014.

The morning of his final jump, on his 90th birthday, began with a tweet from Bush. "It's a wonderful day in Maine – in fact, nice enough for a parachute jump." After a serenade of "Happy Birthday" by his family, Bush leaped from 6,000 feet harnessed to Sgt. 1st Class Mike Elliott, a retired member of the army's elite Golden Knights parachute team.

"It's vintage George Bush," his spokesman, Jim McGrath, told Fox News at the time. "It's that passion for life. It's wanting to set a goal, wanting to achieve it. I'm sure part of it is sending a message to others that even in your retirement years you can still find challenges."

An unlikely friendship

If there was one person who helped shape the public perception of George H.W. Bush, for better or for worse, it was the comedian Dana Carvey.

As an SNL cast member in the late eighties and early nineties, Carvey's impression of Bush was legendary. And even though the impression cast Bush as a "buttoned-down WASP, the out-of-touch man," as historian Jon Meacham told NPR in a 2015 interview, the president never held grudge. Rather, Bush embraced the impression, and over the years, struck up an unlikely friendship with Carvey.

After losing the 1992 election to Bill Clinton, Bush invited Carvey to the White House to roast him in front of his staff. Explaining the key to his impression, Carvey told the crowd: "Start out with Mister Rogers – 'It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood' – then you add in a little John Wayne...you've got George Herbert Walker Bush."

"Dana has given me a lot of laughs," Bush told the audience in the East Room that day. "The fact that we can laugh at each other is a very fundamental thing."

In an interview earlier this year with Conan O'Brien, Carvey recalled how the first couple invited him and his wife to spend time with them before the event. "I've never really seen a marriage that was that effortless," he said. "They were so much fun together."

"We had so many warm moments with them," Carvey said of the friendship that developed after Bush left the White House. Over the years, Carvey said, Bush would even write to him during important moments in his life. "It was a different time. It wasn't scorched-earth angry politics."

In a statement on Saturday, Carvey said, "It was an honor and a privilege to know and spend time with George H.W. Bush for over 25 years. When I think of those times, what I remember most is how hard we would laugh."

"I'm a sock man."

In 2007, Bush was diagnosed with a form of Parkinson's disease that would eventually diminish his ability to walk and leave him almost entirely reliant on wheelchairs and scooters to get around. As a result, his daughter Doro Bush Koch explained in the book My Father, My President, Bush's ankles were always visible:

"Whether he was greeting runners at the Houston Marathon, or attending the unveiling for George and Laura's White House portraits, or recently going to visit the Houston Texan cheerleaders, Dad has taken to wearing socks that can only be described as eye-catching – bright pink, black and yellow stripes, stars and stripes, every color and pattern under the sun. The louder, the better.

Dad hopes people don't think 'this old boy is getting a little strange.' Brandishing colorful socks is simply his way of making the best of his mobility situation and still finding the joy in life."

Over the years, his sock selections became viral sensations. He wore socks with American flags on them, socks with the Superman logo, socks encouraging Americans to vote. In 2013, he wore a pair of socks with his own face on them while accepting an award from the Lyndon B. Johnson Foundation. And last spring, in a final tribute to his wife, Bush wore book-themed socks to the funeral of his partner of 77 years, to commemorate her commitment to family literacy programs.

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