WASHINGTON — As funeral services for former President George H.W. Bush concluded in Texas on Thursday, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie offered his own reflection at a department event on Thursday that showed a different side of the war hero-turned-politician.
Below is a transcript of Wilkie’s remarks about his role in helping to broker an unusual friendship for the president and former first lady Barbara Bush:
“President Bush has a very special place, not only in my heart but in the heart of veterans across the country. … But I’m not going to be somber on that. I’m going to tell you something that he would be proud of.
I got a chance to know him and Mrs. Bush a little bit. They were remarkable people. Coming from the background they had, you would not expect them to be as comfortable on main street as they were on Wall Street.
I had just started as a young staffer on the (Senate) Foreign Relations Committee. I was working for the ranking member at the time, Sen. Jesse Helms (of North Carolina), and I received a call from the White House. For a 20-something-year-old, that was quite an event.
The nation bid goodbye to George H.W. Bush with high praise, cannon salutes and gentle humor Wednesday, celebrating the life of the Texan who embraced a lifetime of service in Washington and was the last president to fight for the U.S. in wartime. Three former presidents looked on at Washington National Cathedral as a fourth — George W. Bush — eulogized his dad as “the brightest of a thousand points of light.”
The operator got on, told me to please hold for the first lady’s office. Mrs. Bush’s secretary got on, and she was whispering. She said, ‘Mr. Wilkie, we have something to request.’ I listened.
She said, ‘Does Sen. Helms know a great American personality by the name of Ric Flair?’
I told her yes ma’am, Sen. Helms actually started televised wrestling in North Carolina in the 1950s. I asked why.
She said, ‘We don’t talk about this very much, but the President and Mrs. Bush watch Mr. Flair every Saturday night. They’re going to Charlotte, and they’d like to know if Mr. Flair could accompany them on Air Force One.’
I said I’d get back to her.
I called the Charlotte office of the National Wrestling Alliance and got his promoter, appropriately named Davy Crockett. I said I have a special request. ... They said, ‘He’ll be there.’
So, there he was, at Andrews Air Force Base, platinum hair, three-piece suit, gold watch, and the first hug Ric gets is from Barbara Bush when she gets out of the limousine.
We fly down to Charlotte, we get in the reception line (at the airport), and Barry Goldwater is there, too. Goldwater gets up and asks the president, ‘Where is Barbara?’
And the president tells him, ‘Barry, after 48 years of marriage, I just lost her to someone called Nature Boy.’
That was George and Barbara Bush to me. Their presence will be greatly missed.”
Bush was laid to rest in College Station, Texas, after a church service on Thursday. World Wrestling Entertainment, Flair’s current employer, held a special 10-bell salute to the former commander in chief at their event in Houston this week.
Thousands waved and cheered along the route as funeral train No. 4141 — for the 41st president — carried George H.W. Bush’s remains to their final resting place on Thursday, his last journey as a week of national remembrance took on a decidedly personal feel in an emotional home state farewell.