KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — Former President George Herbert Walker Bush is a bit lonely, sequestered on an island in the Atlantic Ocean.
“We’ve been here two months and we haven’t gone out once,” he said.
That’s why when a pack of reporters appeared for an event with Sen. John McCain, the man known around town simply as “41” held court for a half an hour on Monday, then gave the whole gaggle a tour of his sprawling compound.
At 84, he is only just beginning to lose a step. Bush recently underwent back surgery and walked gingerly across the driveway when he appeared, but he has lost none of the vigor he had just a few years ago, when he jumped out of an airplane to celebrate his 80th birthday.
“I’m making my final parachute jump next year on my 85th birthday,” he said (look to the skies next June 12th). This time, it really will be his last jump, even though last time his wife, Barbara, “told me, ‘One way or another, this will be your final jump,’ ” he said with a laugh.
The gathering was an interesting study in human nature and political power, with one man on the compound wielding the coming GOP nomination and the other a former president who helped bring down the Berlin Wall and end communism.
What’s more, there aren’t many people the 71-year-old McCain meets with who are 13 years his senior. The pair stood side by side as McCain took questions from the press, with Bush once deferring to the Arizona senator on Iraq. But at the end of the press conference, McCain skedaddled across the driveway, leaving behind his host, who was quickly surrounded by the press.
As reporters tossed out legacy questions about his son and asked about Sen. Barack Obama’s trip to Iraq and Europe, McCain quickly returned. “Let’s go,” he said to Bush, then remembered who he was talknig to. “Let’s go, sir,” he said with a smile.
The pair said goodbye on the driveway, McCain walking back to his Straight Talk Express bus, but then Bush talked candidly with reporters for nearly 30 minutes, at least those who stayed behind when a small group toured the compound.
“Senator Obama has been saying some nice things about you,” one reporter opened.
“Really?” Bush said, then deadpanned: “Has he said anything nice about my son’s foreign policy?”
He called his son’s two terms “a tough run,” and when asked if Iraq will look better in 10 years, he said, “I hope so,” before pausing and adding, “I think so.”
Bush talked candidly about his role in ending the Cold War, saying that former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev wikll soon be visiting the Bush compound at Walker’s Point.
“I think history will be very kind to Gorbachev,” he said.
The president who enacted the federal ban on offshore drilling said times have changed and that “I think more and more people are going to see we have to do some drilling.”
But Bush and his wife have gone green, putting in a windmill on the blustery point to generate energy and adding solar panels. But the avid fisherman joked that “We put up the windmill not to conserve energy but to kill the commorants that eat our bait.”
Spying a Smart car by the house, reporters asked about the energy-efficient Mercedes. Bush said he got the car for Barbara’s birthday, then displayed the kind of clout former presidents have. “You know there’s a waiting list for those things?” he said (yeah, like a year-long waiting list). “I had to get Roger Penske to get me up on the list,” he said, dropping the name of Nascar’s most famous team owner.
He told a bunch of other funny stories, too many to recount. But there was one worth retelling. Bush had arrived in a golf cart with a paper sign that said: “Property of #41 — Hands Off!” One reporter asked whether the former president ever has a problem with people taking his Segueway, which Bush used to ride around the property.
The reporter noted that maybe their all his Segueways, to which Bush said: “Reminds me of [President] Johnson. He was touring Vietnam and when he was leaving, a young soldier said, ‘Sire, there’s your helicopter,’ and Johnson said, ‘They’re all my helicopters, son.’ “
— Joseph Curl, senior White House correspondent, The Washington Times