06.12.09

The President Who Treated Me Like a Son

On George H.W. Bush's 85th birthday, his former aide, Tim McBride, remembers the man he loved like a father and to whom, on Inauguration Day 1989, he lent his overcoat.

From 1985 to 1990, I was George H.W. Bush’s personal aide, better known as the “body guy.” In college, I had been active in Republican Party politics in my home state of Michigan, and I had worked on conventions and campaigns. Still, becoming the vice president’s personal aide was an unexpected and unlikely opportunity for a middle-class kid from the Detroit suburbs.

I didn’t know much about being a body guy when Vice President Bush asked me to take on the job in mid-1985. Though I’d been on his staff for a few months by then, the VP did not know me all that well. “Why don’t we try this out for about three months,” he said, “to see if you like me and I like you.” Well, I knew I liked him…

His great sense of humor was not apparent to many Americans while he was in office, even though he was the first to laugh at himself and Dana Carvey’s impersonations of him.

Being the vice president’s personal aide meant that I was with him from the start of his day until late in the evening when his events were finished. My job was to manage his day and to keep him well-briefed and on schedule. When we traveled throughout the country or around the world, the job was literally 24/7, managing the official and the mundane, including finding time to eat and exercise. Over the next five years, we logged over a million miles together. Growing up in the Midwest, I couldn’t imagine traveling to places like Tunisia and Yemen, or eating whole Maine lobster for the first time in the dining room of the vice president’s residence. In fact, I’d never seen a whole Maine lobster.

With every passing day I got to know George Bush better. His great sense of humor was not apparent to many Americans while he was in office, even though he was the first to laugh at himself and Dana Carvey’s impersonations of him. I saw his devotion to Barbara Bush and to his family, his children and grandchildren, as important to him as oxygen itself. When the president turned in for the evening, he never failed to thank the staff and the Secret Service agents, whom he had affectionately nicknamed “the Marshalls.” That simple act of kindness only inspired us to work twice as hard for him the next day. His was strong, quiet leadership, more concerned with achieving the right result than whether or not he got the credit. And George Bush was renowned for his humility, instilled in him at an early age by his beloved mother, Dorothy Walker Bush. This quality, however, drove his staff crazy—you try running for president without using the word “I.”

For most of 1988, as I was busy crisscrossing the country with George Bush when he was campaigning for president, my dad was sick with pancreatic cancer. Vice President Bush regularly insisted that I leave the campaign bubble, if only for a day, or even a few hours, to go home to see my father while I still could. As a father, he knew how much it would mean to my dad and, years later, how much those moments would mean to me. When my dad died a few days before Christmas in 1988, the first call I received was from the President-elect and Mrs. Bush, offering their condolences and their love.

Throughout his life George Bush has looked out for “the other guy,” a trait admired by everyone who has ever known him. I have a vivid memory of what occurred on Inauguration Day, 1989, arguably the most important day of George Bush’s life. As we stood inside the Capitol waiting for the precise moment when he and Mrs. Bush would be escorted to the swearing-in platform, the president-elect noticed Mrs. Reagan carefully bundling up President Reagan, even though it was a mild 51 degrees outside. Mr. Bush turned to me and urgently said he needed his overcoat. “President Reagan is in his and I don’t want to draw this contrast,” he said, “I can’t go out there looking heartier than the president.” The problem was his topcoat was locked in the limo on the Capitol plaza four stories below. With the 12:05 p.m. swearing-in just minutes away, there was no time to retrieve the coat, but the president-elect was insistent. I quickly offered my topcoat, which fit well enough for him to wear out onto the platform, removing it just before taking the oath of office.

In July 1990, the president asked me to take on new responsibilities as assistant secretary of Commerce. Known as a prolific letter writer, President Bush self-typed a letter to me as I was leaving the White House. In it, he said, “If you ever need to talk about a problem. If you ever need an outstretched hand… if you ever hurt and feel like crying I hope you’ll remember that Bar and I love you like a son. You are over there. For now we are over here; but there is no separation. It is right that you have a chance to show the world what you can do—and you’ll do very well indeed.”

In 2008, as my children joined thousands of other kids on the White House South Lawn for the chaos of the Easter Egg Roll, I had a quiet visit with the 41st president in the private quarters of the White House Residence. I told George H.W. Bush how much he has meant to me for the past 25 years. I told him he filled a void left by my father’s passing in ways he could never imagine; he celebrated and shared in the joy of every important event in my life—my falling in love and getting married, the birth of my two children, professional triumphs and disappointments. His were the phone calls, letters, and emails I will treasure forever.

George H.W. Bush closed his 1990 letter to me with words equally well-suited for him on this great day, his 85th birthday: “Good luck to our noble friend. And P.S. Thanks for having given so much to so many of us.”

Tim McBride was George H.W. Bush’s personal aide from 1985 to 1990 and is married to Anita McBride, who was chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush from 2005 to 2009.