Rain pattered on the sidewalk outside of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum Wednesday morning, as about 50 people gathered inside to mourn the death of President George H.W. Bush.
A live-stream video of Bush’s funeral was projected onto a large screen flanked by American flags. Two grand chandeliers glowed dimly above a roomful of museum staff and visitors, who stood in tandem with the congregation at the Washington National Cathedral where Bush’s funeral services were held. Many covered their hearts with their hands as the casket passed by onscreen. One veteran saluted the screen as the funeral procession ended.
“This is historic,” said Richard Frauenzimmer, who served in the Marine Corps in the 1960s. “I hope this brings the country together. It’s a showing of unity, graciousness.”
Sporting a tie checkered with images of presidents’ faces, Terrence Bates, a business account manager at Verizon, watched silently as President George W. Bush broke down with emotion while giving his father’s eulogy.
“I thought that was so powerful,” Bates said. “He’s a real man, and he has real feelings, and he has a big heart for his dad.”
Bates said he had met both presidents — the elder in 1992, on one of his many campaign stops in Orange County, and the younger during his presidential bid several years later. Both Bushes said the same thing to Bates when they shook his hand: “Thank you, son.”
“My dad died in ’84, and so I kind of looked to him, even though he was president of the United States, as like a father or grandfather figure,” Bates said of the elder Bush. “I just learned a lot from him as far as how to be a servant, how to be kind and gentler.”
The first time Bush visited the presidential library in Yorba Linda was at the grand opening in July 1990 — on one of the hottest days of the year, said Sandy Quinn, a member of the Nixon Foundation Board of Directors and one of the organizers of the opening event.
About 50,000 people were seated on the library grounds in the sweltering heat while Bush, Nixon and Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford gathered inside the lobby to take photos. Just as the photoshoot was wrapping up, someone brought in comedian and national treasure Bob Hope, who was then 87, to use the bathroom.
“They said, ‘Bob, get over here, Bob come here!’” Quinn remembered. He said Hope posed with them for photos, told a couple of jokes and then returned to his seat outside.
“It was a very congenial group, the four of them.”
Quinn said Nixon then turned to the other three presidents and asked: “Anybody like to take a look at the galleries?”
“It was like four old pals going through a baseball museum or something,” Quinn said.
Everybody agreed, and as the entourage walked through the galleries, Quinn said Bush showed the most interest, reading all the texts and panels on display.
“Bush asked the most questions and was the most absorbed in everything,” he said.
When the event finally kicked off, at least 15 minutes late, Bush introduced Nixon with evident esteem. The 41st president had served as ambassador to the United Nations during Nixon’s presidency and, according to Quinn, the two had become “good friends.”
Speaking to the crowd outside the library, Bush credited Yorba Linda, where Nixon grew up in a “small frame house” with teaching the 37th president about the “silent majority.”
“He came from the heart of America, not geographically perhaps, but culturally,” Bush said in his speech. “Richard Nixon was the quintessence of Middle America and touched deep chords of response in millions of our citizens.”
Bush visited the library in Yorba Linda twice more, for Nixon’s funeral in 1994 and to receive the foundation’s Architect of Peace award from Nixon’s youngest daughter, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, in 2000.
The library is collecting condolence messages to the Bush family in a book in the Annenberg Entrance Court. The book will be available for anyone to sign during normal library hours until Dec. 16.
For the president’s visit in 2000, Quinn helped organize a book signing for “A World Transformed,” which Bush co-authored with his former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft in 1998. Quinn said the president insisted on taking a photo and speaking with everybody in line.“He was interested in people and wanted to meet them and visit with them,” Quinn said.
Jim Doti, president emeritus of Chapman University, shared similar stories from Bush’s 2000 visit to Orange to receive the university’s first Global Citizen Medal.
“He would stop and talk to practically everybody,” Doti said. “He made a special effort to talk to the people who were working on the landscaping … He was just a very gregarious, friendly guy and he absolutely loved people.”
Bush stayed that weekend at the Newport Beach home of his friend George Argyros, whom he often visited on his trips to Orange County, said Doti and Quinn. Bush waived his usual speaking fee – which could cost as much as $100,000 – because the invitation to visit Chapman came from Argyros.
Doti remembers hearing a story that Argyros wanted to take the president on a Duffy boat ride around the bay on the Sunday of his visit. Bush was “delighted,” Doti said, but the Secret Service was “going nuts” about the risks.
“President Bush promised the Secret Service detail that he would go incognito and have a hat and a jacket and nobody will know who he is. I don’t know how or why, but somebody recognized him and started screaming, ‘That’s President Bush!’ ” Doti recalled, laughing.
“It didn’t take long before the whole bay knew it was President Bush. … [It was] a very special moment in Newport Beach.”
Quinn said he hoped the memorials this week could be a teaching moment about the history of the country.