The death of former President George H.W. Bush, who will be remembered in a national day of mourning on Wednesday, brought to mind a very personal memory of a man who once shared a flight with me and showed himself to be a true, values-based leader.
I am not a political person, and my convictions tend to be more nonpartisan in nature. But I had admired Bush, who put service to his country first, both in government as the 41st president and during World War II as a Navy pilot — coincidentally assigned to the same aircraft carrier where my father served.
The night I recall was March 16, 2000, when I was chairman and CEO of Baxter International, a $12 billion health care company. I had been invited to a management dinner by Credit Suisse First Boston, and Bush was the guest speaker. Seated next to him at dinner, I found him to be warm and gracious. Despite his tremendous accomplishments, including playing a key role in ending the Cold War and reunifying Germany, he came across as a regular guy.
For example, when I asked how long he was staying in Chicago, Bush explained he had to leave immediately: “I’m on the last Continental fight tonight back to Houston.” I was surprised that he would fly commercial. He shrugged it off: “Barbara gave me a book. I’m going to read it on the flight back.”
As CEO of a Fortune 100 company, I had access to a private plane. But I, too, liked to fly commercial whenever possible, and often in coach. As a leader, I tried to always remember where I came from. But that night, in order to make the dinner and still get to Los Angeles for an early morning meeting, Baxter’s private jet had been arranged for me. To think that a former president was flying commercial while I was alone onboard a Falcon 9000 didn’t sit right with me. I decided to invite him on my company’s jet.
It took a little convincing of the president and the Secret Service agents, who weren’t exactly happy with the change in travel arrangements. “It’s right on the way,” I told Bush.
“Harry, you must not be good at maps,” he joked. “Houston is not on the way to Los Angeles.”
He eventually agreed, and for those three hours to Houston, it was the two of us in that plane, along with a couple of Secret Service agents. When I told him how he and my dad had served on the same aircraft carrier, he was genuinely touched by the coincidence.
I asked him about how he felt about losing to Bill Clinton and not serving a second term. He didn’t hesitate in responding: “Harry, I have no regrets. I had my shot — we got some good things done and I made some mistakes. It was an honor and a blessing to serve as President of the United States.”
His son, George W. Bush, was running for office, and later that year would be elected the 43rd president. As we talked about the campaign, Bush became very reflective. “I hope George realizes what’s involved. This will not be easy for Laura and the children. And he will have to do it on his own.” In that moment, it struck me: He was not a former president, but a concerned father.
When our pilot asked which airport Bush preferred, he replied “the smaller one.” One of the Secret Service agents called me over. “It’s the George Bush Airport. But he doesn’t like to call it that.”
Overhearing, the president piped up: “When we’re having breakfast and the weatherman on TV says, ‘It’s dark, cloudy and threatening at Bush’ — meaning the airport, Barbara always says, ‘same situation in my kitchen.'”
Had we left it at that, the evening would have been memorable. But the next day, while I was still in Los Angeles, a leather-bound, autographed copy of his book, “All the Best, George Bush” arrived at my office — and, astoundingly, a signed copy and a note was also sent to my father in Wisconsin.
When I learned of the president’s death at the age of 94, I took out that book and re-read the note. “Dear Harry: It is 9:37 AM the ‘day after.’ I hope you’ve arrived in Los Angeles. My guilt runneth over, but so does my cup of gratitude. I will never ever forget what you did for me.”
And I will never forget the gracious man — a regular guy — who shared a flight halfway across the country with me.