The midnight salute America never saw

John McCaslin

President George H.W. Bush has now been laid to rest next to his wife of 73 years, Barbara, and the couple’s daughter, Robin, on the grounds of his presidential library at Texas A&M University.

Instead of Yale, from which Bush graduated on the G.I. Bill, the World War II aviator chose Texas A&M to protect the many documents and artifacts of his presidency, deeply fond as he was of the university’s strong military tradition and proud Corps of Cadets — 2,100 of whom in dress uniform stood at attention and saluted Thursday as the last of the former president’s several funeral processions passed by.

The ROTC had been banned from Bush’s alma-mater ever since the war in Vietnam, expelled from the Connecticut campus by Yale faculty despite the U.S. military’s rich and storied affiliation with the university that previously offered thriving ROTC detachments of every service.

As a longtime political columnist in Washington, D.C., I wrote about Yale’s Class of 1937 and their 65th reunion call for the ROTC to be restored to the campus. Albert Bidner, a Navy ROTC member in the class, argued that “forty years later it is a more dangerous world, particularly after the surprise attack by Osama bin Laden, fueled by an ideology which sees the United States and Western culture as its mortal enemy.”

Bildner then stated rather bluntly, “Yale should not expect other people to carry the burden of defending the country while Yale students do nothing in defense of the United States.”

A few days after my column appeared in print, I was surprised to receive a handwritten letter from Bush, postmarked Texas.

“I read your column ‘Yale’s Turn,’ and I just want you to know that I totally agree with the idea that it is time for Yale to restore ROTC to the campus,” wrote the nation’s 41st president. “It is my strongly held view that the ROTC should not have been kicked off the campus in the first place.

“I love Yale,” Bush 41 continued, “but they sometimes, especially back in the sixties, seemed to try to jump out ahead of the radicals, totally turning off a lot of loyal alumni like me in the process.

President George H.W. Bush visiting American troops in Saudi Arabia before the 1991 Gulf War. By Dennis Brack

It would take Yale nearly a half century to reverse course, but the fall semester of 2012 marked the return to its campus of Naval and Air Force ROTC programs.

As was witnessed during this past week’s State Funeral, which stretched from Washington to Houston to Bush’s final resting place at Texas A&M, the U.S. military — past and present — came out in full force to honor one of their own, a young Navy pilot who’d flown 58 missions in the Pacific theater, and was rescued at sea not once, but twice.

This strong relationship between Bush and the military wasn’t often recognized during his years of public service. However, there was one such telling moment, arguably more than any other during his lifetime, when this impregnable bond became ever so apparent.

It took place before everybody had cell phones in their hands, or else the nation would have seen it posted on Instagram. For that matter, the news media wasn’t on hand, either.

It had been a soul-searching week for Bush and his wife, Barbara. His approval rating had been 91 percent following the Gulf War, and now suddenly he’d been denied a second term in the White House.

Just before midnight on the first Tuesday following the election, Bush telephoned White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater at home to say that he and the first lady were going out for a late-night stroll.

Oh, and one more thing, Bush added: “I’m not taking anyone with us.”

Just before midnight on the first Tuesday following the election, Bush telephoned White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater at home to say that he and the first lady were going out for a late-night stroll.
Oh, and one more thing, Bush added: “I’m not taking anyone with us.” By Dennis Brack

It is extremely rare that a White House press corps is kept in the dark when the president steps foot outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Particularly at so late an hour and during such dangerous times. But off into the night the president and first lady disappeared.

Soon thereafter the couple arrived at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where at that unlikely hour volunteers were taking turns reading aloud the names of all 58,183 brave souls inscribed on “the Wall.”

After losing the 1992 election just days before, the first couple arrived at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial — unaccompanied — where late night volunteers were taking turns reading aloud the names of all 58,183 brave souls inscribed on “the Wall.” By Dennis Brack

Bush in time stepped in, picking up where the previous reader left off. And then, not quite finished with his moving gestures that only a few would see, the commander in chief extended on behalf of the nation a long overdue and heartfelt thank you to the two hundred or so Vietnam veterans on hand for their many wartime sacrifices.

John McCaslin is editor of the Rappahannock News. For three decades, he was a political columnist, author and broadcaster in Washington, DC.

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