01.20.09

Aboard the Bush Plane

In a Daily Beast exclusive, a former Bush advisor files his account—and his photos—from aboard the former president’s flight back to Texas.

Knowing it would be impossible to get out of the city Tuesday morning, many of us arrived Monday night at the very funky Econo Lodge by Air Force Andrews Base. The Blair House it was not. But good to be humbled on the way out.

We jumped in a van in the morning and watched Obama’s inaugural address from the lobby at Andrews. The group of 100 or so watching, of which 100 percent were George Bush supporters, all offered their enthusiastic applause for the new commander in chief. Not to say there weren’t some critical reviews of the speech, complaints about taking unnecessary shots, and grousing about borrowed ideas, but there was an absence of malice one normally sees among the constituencies of the vanquished.

And then we all boarded the plane. Among the passengers, longtime Bush family, friends, and staffers included the former president’s mother and father and daughters Jenna and Barbara, Karl Rove, Karen Hughes, Dan Bartlett, Josh Bolten, Joel Kaplan, Jared Weinstein, Mike Meece, Andy Card, Don and Susie Evans, Blake Gottesman, Clay and Ann Johnson, Ed Gillespie, Barry Jackson, Joe Hagin, Israel Hernandez, Jeanne Johnson Phillips, Margaret Spellings, Alberto Gonzales, Brad Freeman, Jim and Debbie Francis, and Roland and Lois Betts.

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“Grateful.”

That’s the word expressed not just by former President Bush, but his staff, as well, on the last flight home aboard on what any other day of the last eight years would have been Air Force One, but today was Special Air Mission 28000.

I can only imagine the blogosphere lighting up with what will be some version of “good riddance.” But while I expected the president’s mood to be defiant, bitter, defensive, or vengeful toward his critics, he was anything but. As he toured the cabin of the airplane throughout the flight, visiting with old friends, family, and staffers, he was filled with equanimity, grace, and a generosity of spirit.

Bush has gotten to know Obama during this transition period and he has a pretty good gut for people. His gut tells him Obama has what it takes to be a successful leader.

And while I’m reluctant to quote the president directly from private conversations, I think I can fairly report that he feels a genuine warmth for President Obama. He admires his sense of family, his relaxed and easygoing nature, and his character. He has gotten to know him during this transition period and he has a pretty good gut for people. His gut tells him Obama has what it takes to be a successful leader. Not yet tested. Not yet proved he is willing to make difficult and unpopular decisions. But the potential is clearly there.

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And it’s nice to see that while some partisans have yet to sheath their swords, Obama too has warmed to President Bush during this period of peaceful, diplomatic, and graceful transition. He now believes, as does anyone who knows President Bush, that he is a “good guy” and that “he made the best decisions that he could at times under some very difficult circumstances.”

I also know the Obama team has deeply appreciated the degree to which President Bush and his staff went out of their way to make for a smooth transition.

President Bush acknowledged that before Obama was even sworn in today, he knew his life had changed when his usual morning papers failed to be delivered at the White House.

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About midflight, everyone gathered with President Bush in the conference room to view a moving and emotional 22-minute video produced by Scott Sforza and edited by Laura Crawford that included administration highlights and personal messages and thank-yous from staff and Cabinet members.

Mrs. Bush strolled the aisles thanking friends and staffers. The president’s father, with his walking stick, hobbled through, as well, with a familiar glint in his eye and smile at the corner of his lips. Wife Barbara padded around behind him, ever ready with a witty riposte to any and all. Karl Rove was in his usual seat in the conference room, challenging Joe Hagin and Blake Gottesman to a game of cards. And winning. Insisting they autograph the final score. And I was snapping pictures all along, inspiring Josh Bolten to declare me a “tourist.” Which I happily admitted I was and have been all along.

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There was a lot of talk of old days and old times. About how eight years had flown by. About how children had grown. There was no high-fiving or celebration. And no weeping or whining. Just a quiet and friendly exchange of hugs between longtime colleagues and friends who had traveled a lot of miles together and weathered a lot storms.

And in the end, we all were simply grateful for the incredible ride.

RELATED: An oral history of presidents' final flights home.

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, causes, and individuals, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono. McKinnon is co-chair of Arts & Labs, a collaboration between technology and creative communities that have embraced today’s rich internet environment to deliver innovative and creative digital products to consumers.