As President George H.W. Bush was making his final flight home in December 2018 after the state funeral held for him in Washington, D.C., I recalled that he often considered death to be serious business – well sort of. By this, I mean that one of his primary duties as Ronald Reagan’s Vice President before himself being elected President in 1988 was to represent the United States at the funerals of foreign heads of state. In this capacity, he made dozens of trips abroad to pay our nation’s respects to world leaders – both friends and adversaries, alike.
Bush’s trips representing the U.S. during foreign funerals became so routine that he used to quip among his staff that his motto as Vice President had become “You die, I fly.”
In retrospect, Bush was doing a lot more during these trips than just attending ceremonies for the recently departed. He was making contacts, explaining U.S. policy, and seeking out the views of foreign leaders regarding the events unfolding at the time. These experiences would serve him well during his single term as President from 1989 to 1993, when he deftly managed one of the most critical periods in U.S. diplomatic history.
Most importantly, the insights he gained during his trips to the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, and the relationships he established with Russian counterparts – particularly with emerging newcomer Mikhail Gorbachev – would give Bush first-hand knowledge about the inside workings of Moscow’s changing political climate and the confidence to manage peacefully and constructively the end to the Cold War. Bush would play a key role in facilitating the peaceful unraveling of three Gordian knots during this period: (a) the re-integration of Eastern Europe into the West (including German reunification), (b) the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and (c) the safeguarding of Soviet loose nukes.
The tone that Bush set as President clearly paved the way for nearly two decades of U.S.-Russian cooperation in important areas, ranging from nuclear arms control and nonproliferation to combating nuclear terrorism – mission areas in which I would have the privilege to play a small role.
Bush would make three trips to the Soviet Union during the early 1980s to attend the funerals of Soviet leaders; and our paths would cross briefly in November 1982, during the first of these visits – which commemorated the passing of Leonid Brezhnev, the long-serving General Secretary of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Presidium of the USSR.
In 1982, I was serving at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow as the most junior attaché in the U.S. Defense Attaché Office. As a C-141 transport pilot, one of my responsibilities was to oversee the flight operations of U.S. Air Force aircraft transporting U.S. dignitaries to the Soviet Union. Therefore, after Brezhnev died, I became in effect a forward operating base commander in Moscow for planning and executing the arrivals, departures, and care & feeding of several aircraft and about 50 aircrew and support personnel about to descend upon us in the dead of winter. Vice President Bush, Secretary of State George Schulz, and Senator Bob Dole would each be flying in on their own aircraft, and this small fleet of VIP aircraft would be arriving at different times within the next 24 hours.
In retrospect, managing just three aircraft and Bush’s fairly small delegation doesn’t seem like such a big deal. By comparison, in the late 1990s, during my second posting to Moscow, one of President Bill Clinton’s summits with Russian President Boris Yeltsin featured 12 aircraft and an entourage of nearly 500 staff, cabinet heads, security personnel, and low-ranking advisors.
However, the Brezhnev funeral much earlier in 1982 took place during the darkest days of the Cold War; and due to the suspicious nature of the Soviet state, the U.S. delegation, by comparison with the Clinton era, kept to a relatively low profile. Moreover, our access to the Russians’ flight planning and ground support organizations was fairly limited. The White House Presidential Advance Team and Secret Service were already en route to Moscow on commercial aircraft – they were expecting concrete answers to a host of security and protocol questions on their arrival – and we really didn’t know what to expect by way of cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the airport authorities, or the KGB.
In short, it all worked out. Obviously pleased that the U.S. was paying tribute to their most long-serving leader since Josef Stalin, the Soviets opened doors and gave us unprecedented access to the necessary facilities and personnel, including the airport tarmac, refueling equipment, flight planning facilities, and even their historically closed security services. It was an amazing example of U.S.-Russian cooperation – if only for a brief moment before slamming our access shut after the last USAF aircraft took off several days later.
My personal encounter with Vice President Bush was so brief that it barely bears mentioning.
Air Force Two arrived in the middle of the night in a bone-chilling, snow-filled blizzard called a “Buran.” After helping the Russian marshaller (the guy with the orange paddles) park the aircraft (for some reason, the 89th Military Airlift Wing from Andrews AFB was so picky about such details), I helped guide the mobile stairs to the front door of the Boeing 707 – ensuring that the operator wouldn’t be disabling one of the aircraft’s wings in the process. I then quickly tested the integrity of each frozen step, as I negotiated my way up to the door near the cockpit.
Like clockwork, as I reached the top of the stairs, the front hatch opened. The lead agent for the White House Advance Team and I then slipped into the warm interior of the cabin, and we quickly briefed the Vice President about what to expect as he left the aircraft. Already bundled up in his warm overcoat and scarf, Bush took a breath, cracked half a smile, and said, “O.K., let’s do this.” He then deftly slipped pass me and eagerly bounced down the stairs to his limousine, now waiting below.
It was all over before I knew it. I didn’t even have time to advise him on the burning foreign policy issues of the moment. “Maybe next time,” I thought.
A few minutes later, as I was helping some White House Communications Agency personnel load up their gear into my Embassy-provided Suburban, we were approached by a gaggle of snow-covered “White-Walkers.” Several had AK-47s strapped to their shoulders. I thought: “Oh-oh, now it begins.”
To my relief, one of the gun-toting apparitions pulled off his hood. Noticing the logo on the hood of the Suburban, he then asked in Russian, rather sheepishly, “Is this automobile a Chevy?”
I replied in the affirmative; and two of the Soviets then proceeded to run their hands across the body of the car, mumbling the Russian equivalent of “Wow. . . . WOW!”
I asked why they were so interested in the van. They replied that they had served as automobile mechanics during World War II. They would always be grateful that the U.S had sent over so many Chevrolet trucks under Lend-Lease to support Soviet operations against the Nazis.
One of the Russians then confided, “I always believed that Chevrolet made the best engines. Gee, I had no idea they were still in business.”
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According to the Air Force Two flight crew, George H.W. Bush had a good sense of humor and treated everyone with legendary kindness.
Later on, when serving as President of the United States, Bush was absolutely beloved by his Air Force One aircrew (which then flew a specially modified Boeing 747 that had been built for Reagan). The crewmembers were so devoted to the President that they presented him with a special Bible on his last day in office in 1993. Today, that unique Air Force One Bible – together with the family Bible that Bush used when he took the Presidential Oath of Office in 1989 – resides on display in the Museum of the Bible in downtown Washington, D.C. Years later into my own retirement, I am currently serving as a volunteer tour docent at this amazing institution and monument to the religious faith shared by many of our Presidents, including the quiet but unwavering belief in Almighty God that served George H.W. Bush so well throughout his entire life.
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Back earlier in 1982, the Air Force Two aircrew transporting then Vice President Bush to Moscow for the Brezhnev funeral presented me with a small memento for this important occasion – a deck of cards. Bush enjoyed playing on his long flights, and the flight stewards always kept a few unopened decks for special occasions. The aircraft commander said that there was another deck somewhere, and the small package (which contained two decks of “official” Air Force Two playing cards) wouldn’t be missed.
At the time, I recall being so busy that I considered the event as being relatively minor. With little thought, I crammed the small package into the pocket of my winter coat as I exited the warm cabin to supervise the refueling of the aircraft from outside. Looking back years later, Brezhnev’s passing and Bush’s arrival was indeed noteworthy – for it clearly marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War. In retrospect, I’m so glad that I was given this small memento and managed to squirrel it away for safekeeping all these years.
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After the funeral at the National Cathedral in December 2018, I prayed “God’s speed” for George H.W. Bush on his final flight home to Texas. I then decided to open up one of the sealed packs of Air Force Two playing cards, which had been laying untouched in a drawer of an antique buffet in our house for several decades.
Keeping with Bush’s love of a good-natured jest, I noticed several interesting cards in the deck. Each of the four “Aces” bears the seal of the Vice President of the United States. No surprise there.
And what of the two “Jokers” among the cards?
They are labeled “Congress,” of course: one for each House.