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Neil Bush Remembers His Father, Former President George H.W. Bush


George H.W. Bush was a statesman, commander in chief and head of a powerful political dynasty. But what was he like when he was just dad? Someone who knows very personally the answer to that question joins me in the studio now. Neil Bush is the fourth of 6 Bush children. He chose to go into business, not politics. And he's now the chairman of Points of Light, a volunteer organization that his father started. Neil was at the president's bedside when he died.

Thank you so much for coming in today.

NEIL BUSH: Thank you, Ailsa.

CHANG: And I'm very sorry for your loss.

BUSH: Thank you. Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

CHANG: I can only imagine how many personal moments with your father you've been replaying in your head the last several days, I mean, moments when he was just being a dad and not president of the United States. Would you mind sharing a personal memory with me?

BUSH: Well, I guess one memory as a child - so my dad became a congressman. In 1966, he was elected, sworn in in 1967. I was 12 years old at the time we moved here. So probably 1968 or '69, my dad had a boat on the Potomac River. And as a - on a whim on a Friday evening, he came home from work. He worked long hours as a congressman.

CHANG: Yeah.

BUSH: He was on the House Ways and Means Committee. He said, who would like to go for a boat ride to take the boat all the way around to the bay and stuff? And I said - and it was nighttime already. I said, I would. You know, count me in...

CHANG: Course I would (laughter).

BUSH: ...'Cause I love boats, and he loved boats. And we both share that love together. And so we packed up and had a sleeping bag. And, you know - and we took off, and it got foggy on the river. And we almost ran into a barge. We ended up settling in at this little cove and slept outside.

CHANG: It was just the two of you.

BUSH: Just the two of us. And he's just such a thoughtful, loving, kind man, and he was the kind of guy that was present when we were kids.

CHANG: Even with such a packed schedule, he still saved the space to be...

BUSH: Yeah, saved the space just for me.

CHANG: ...A dad one-on-one...

BUSH: Yeah, just...

CHANG: ...With you.

BUSH: Right, which is great. And he did that with all the siblings. I'd like to say I was his favorite kid, but - probably not true.

CHANG: (Laughter).

BUSH: I was my mother's favorite, but my - 'cause she worried about me the most. But...

CHANG: About your mother, Barbara Bush passed away in April, and I have read, you know, that that was very tough on your dad. Can you describe their marriage through the eyes of a kid growing up in a household like yours?

BUSH: You know, we - I was reminiscing last night with my brother George and brother Marvin and Doro. Nobody in our family's ever recalled seeing my mom and dad speak a harsh word to one another.

CHANG: Really?

BUSH: My parents...

CHANG: I mean, the argued presumably.

BUSH: I assume they had differences, I'm - but they never aired any dirty laundry or had any anxiety expressed towards each other ever. None of us could remember a moment when they were bickering back and forth.

CHANG: That's hard to pull off.

BUSH: It's very difficult. I've failed in that mission with my marriages. But they lived 73 years together. My mom often said that she has lived this magical life being married to George Bush. And she wanted to live one day longer than dad. Dad's such a tough guy.

CHANG: (Laughter).

BUSH: He was - he's been down multiple times over the past four or five years, and often we would say there's no way he's going to come back from this. And yet he'd make another recovery.

CHANG: There he was.

BUSH: And mom couldn't hang in there long enough to see her wish that she at least watch him, you know, pass away before her. So they had a touching, loving, affectionate relationship for all those years. They were a perfect pair, a perfect match.

CHANG: Your father had a very strong commitment to service. He compared volunteer organizations around the country to a thousand points of light on the campaign trail in 1988. You now chair Points of Light, a volunteer organization that your father founded. Tell me what about this group best reflects what your father stood for.

BUSH: So Points of Light, the organization Dad started 30 years ago, is the largest organization to focus on voluntary service. And so far, there's been a growth. Since Dad started Points of Light, 32 million Americans volunteered. Now 62 million Americans volunteer every year, and they do it with more impact, more hours, more corporations, more youth. More faith organizations are sending people into the field or into their communities to help out.

It's a uniquely American thing that we as individuals not relying on government but we as individuals pitch in to make our communities better. And that's one of - I think it will be one of Dad's living and enduring legacies through Points of Light that we're going to, you know, continue to encourage people to find their way to help others.

CHANG: I understand you live very close to your parents' home in Houston. And you - as we've said, you were at your father's bedside and your mother's bedside when they passed. Can you tell me, what was it like spending your father's last few days with him?

BUSH: First of all, it was hard to know that the moment he passed away around 10 o'clock on Friday night was going to be that moment 'cause he had rebounded. He'd been tired and sluggish, but he - we had a good breakfast that day. But when they said this is the moment, you know, we were able to get almost every grandchild. He has 17 grandchildren, quite a few great-grandchildren now. Every one of them called in or were reached. And my siblings who weren't there all were able to speak of the love they have for my dad.

And you talk about emotional. It was just such a sweet thing, their tribute after tribute. The impact he's had on our family is indelible and will never ever be forgotten obviously and will hopefully impact others just by the way we've - we'll live our lives to be like him. I admire - I aspire to be like my dad. I want to be the man that he has been in his life. He's just an amazing man.

And one of the words my daughter Ashley used in describing him was humility. I think that's a great word to - 'cause he didn't need credit for stuff. He just lead by example, and he served this nation and people with humility, always giving credit to the other guy and - but doing the right thing. And under his watch, the world became a much, much better place. If there were more George Herbert Walker Bushes is in this world. There would be far more peace, more freedom, more cooperation, more love, more problems being solved and more reaching across the aisle. We'd be a much better place.

CHANG: Neil Bush, son of President George H.W. Bush, thank you so much for coming in and spending the time to talk with us today.

BUSH: An honor, pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.