Culpeper locals shared fond remembrances of George H.W. Bush as the 41st president prepared to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol rotunda through Wednesday. The Navy veteran died Friday at his home in Houston. Bush was 94.
In early 1997, following his presidency from 1989 to 1993, Bush spent an hour or so at the Depot in downtown Culpeper after flying into the local airport. Police Chief Chris Jenkins, then a sergeant, remembered the experience.
“They caravanned him there to the train station—he was catching a train to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. He got there, of course the train was late, he probably spent an hour with us posing for photographs and just talking,” Jenkins said.
The police chief recalled being contacted by the Secret Service the day before about the upcoming visit, as was protocol. Jenkins said Bush Sr. left an impression.
“He wasn’t president then, but you never would have thought that he (had been) one of the most powerful men in the world, just as humble and genuine as he could be, talked about family and community,” he said.
Jenkins said it was a humbling experience.
“He was always very pro-police, as his son was. They were very professional and just good folks,” he said of Bush Sr. and his son, George W. Bush, the 43rd president.
Jenkins added that when the late president visited the Culpeper Depot it was before its renovation, but Bush had some positive words.
“The train station was a dump compared to what it is now and he even commented, he said, ‘They are doing great things with these old train stations. I’ll have to come back and check it out when yours is done,’” Jenkins said. The town used federal funds in the early 2000s to restore the aged station.
Bill of Rights bicentennial
Another local landmark is connected to Bush.
On Dec. 16, 1991, in the third year of his presidency, he visited James Madison’s Montpelier in Orange County for the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights, authored by the Founding Father. Bush Sr. also announced a request to Congress for $1 million to restore the presidential mansion, which later became a five-year $24 million project completed in 2008.
At the event, Bush proclaimed 1991 “a year of thanksgiving for the blessings of liberty,” according to a front-page article by staff reporter Vincent Vala in the Culpeper Star-Exponent.
Schoolchildren from Culpeper and Orange came to the momentous announcement at Montpelier, followed by a luncheon attended by more than 450 people including U.S. Senator John Warner, Rep. George Allen and representatives from the former Soviet Union. Bush called on all present to continue their work to make Montpelier a living center for future studies of the foundations of American freedoms set out in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
“Two hundred years later, they still make a reliable guide,” the president told the crowd. “We can make strong decisions today if we heed the wise counsel of our founders.”
Bush enumerated the main concepts incorporated by Madison into the Constitution as the limits of the powers of the central government in favor of the individual states “whenever possible,” the protection of property rights, the equal application of all laws to all citizens and “the protection of the nation from the destructive forces of what Madison called factions,” also known as special interest groups.
“These principles,” Bush said, “have enabled us—10 generations of Americans—to govern ourselves and continue to be free. They are the spirit which animates the American consciousness.”
In 2002, the Montpelier Foundation established the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution, a teaching academy focused on the country’s founding documents.
The vice presidential years
Noted Culpeper historian Clark “Bud” Hall, a retired FBI agent, recalled his professional interaction in 1987 with then Vice President Bush. That’s when Hall worked as lead investigator for a House panel probing the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages’ scandal during President Ronald Reagan’s second term.
The panel reviewed voluminous documents related to the scheme from various intelligence agencies, the White House and the Defense Department before conducting interviews with various federal officials, including Bush.
“As we went through all of this information, thousands and thousands of documents, one name absent throughout was the Vice President. There was never a document that directly connected (Bush Sr.) with Iran Contra. We never viewed him as a subject of the investigation,” Hall said. “His hands were completely clean.”
The former FBI agent said he would frequently see Bush during the investigation and that he never once interfered with the inquiry.
“He was interviewed by the committee and found to be relaxed and gracious and that was the end of it,” Hall said, adding of Bush Sr., “Over the years as he became president he always comported himself with enormous dignity and civility. He never had a mean streak in him, was never vindictive. He never attacked people personally. He appealed to our better angels throughout his career.”
Culpeper County Board Chairman Bill Chase never met Bush Sr., but he met his wife, Barbara Bush in 1993 when the Alice C. Tyler Village of Childhelp opened in Lignum. The former First Lady died in April at the age of 92.
Chase recalled the encounter.
“I stood back, I was kind of awkward, but she came up and threw her arms around me, gave me a big hug, said, ‘Don’t be shy.’ She was just as nice as could be, just a wonderful woman,” he said.
Chase added that Bush Sr. was a good president.
“I always liked him, he took a lot of heat over the tax thing, but that was politics and he always put people before politics,” he said.