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College Station is known for many things, most of which are Aggie-related. But perhaps the biggest draw in town, aside from football, is the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, on the campus of Texas A&M University. It’s one of three presidential libraries in Texas; the others are the LBJ Library in Austin and the George W. Bush Library in Dallas. Though President Dwight D. Eisenhower was born in Denison, he chose to have his library built in Kansas, where he grew up.
George H.W. Bush didn’t attend A&M; he went to Yale. So how did his library end up on this Texas university campus? According to Warren Finch, director of the library, it took a little convincing from a friend.
“Even though he was born in the East, I think after he moved here, he considered himself a Texan, just like a lot of people who move here,” Finch said. “There was a lot of interest within the state to have the library built on their campuses. Rice, the University of Houston as well as A&M all wanted the library to be there. A friend of his, the famous oilman and A&M graduate Michel Halbouty, asked him if he had thought about where he was going to put his presidential library. At the time, he had just been elected president. He wasn’t even inaugurated yet, and he told Halbouty that it was just too early to talk about it.”
Halbouty wasn’t about to give up easily. He went back to A&M and assembled a committee with some prominent graduates, administrators and chancellors to get the ball rolling.
“The committee invited [Bush] here for the spring commencement to be the commencement speaker,” Finch continued. “While he was on campus, they brought him out here to the site and had a three-dimensional model of what the building was going to look like. They also told him they were going to donate a 90-acre tract to house it. At the time, there was nothing out here but cows and grass.”
Halbouty’s persistence paid off for the university. Two years into Bush’s presidency, the official announcement was made that the library would be at Texas A&M. “Even though he lost the presidency two years later, the university was very welcoming and very accommodating,” Finch said.
A visit to the library and museum offers a fascinating look behind the scenes of the elder Bush’s presidency. It includes a replica of the Oval Office, exactly as it was while Bush was president; rare family photographs and memorabilia; and declassified letters, memos and materials detailing Operation Desert Storm and other presidential matters.
“The three most popular things we have here are the Oval Office, where visitors can have their picture taken while sitting behind the presidential desk, a replica of the U.S. Navy Avenger aircraft that President Bush flew in World War II, and of course, the Union Pacific locomotive that brought him to his final resting place here,” Finch said.
There almost wasn’t an Oval Office replica. When planning the library and museum, President Bush noted that every other presidential library had an Oval Office display, and he thought they were boring. For the library’s first 10 years, the Oval Office display didn’t exist. But eventually President Bush was overruled, and the display is one of the most popular stops for visitors.
“People want to have their pictures taken in the president’s chair behind the desk,” Finch said. “One fact that generally surprises visitors is that the desk isn’t the famous Resolute desk that was a gift from Queen Victoria. President Bush used a desk that had been in the White House collection. It’s the same desk he used during his eight years as vice president.” The photos atop the desk are the same ones he had while president, and in one of the drawers is his old Yale baseball glove that he carved his initials into.
The locomotive has an interesting story as well, highlighted by President Bush’s love of trains.
“We actually wanted a caboose for the display, one that was painted in Union Pacific orange,” Finch said. “But cabooses have been out of service for so many years that they are very hard to find. Many of them ended up being sold as tiny houses or simply destroyed. No one in the railroad industry ever thought about the historic significance of a caboose.”
A representative from Union Pacific said that instead of a caboose, the company could donate a locomotive, change the ID number to UP4141 (Bush was the 41st president) and have it sent to College Station.
“True to their word, they sent the locomotive down here,” Finch said. “We put it under a big tent, behind a curtain, and invited President Bush here for the big reveal. We dropped the curtain, and he climbed in the locomotive, waving to everyone at the ceremony. Then they let him drive it up and down the rails between here and Mumford, about 25 miles away, back and forth for three or four hours. He loved that train.”
The train is located just outside the main building of the library, but while the library and museum were closed during the coronavirus pandemic, it was tented and covered. As the National Archives, the governmental entity that manages the museum, opens up more and more historical sites, the hope is that the museum and library will reopen soon.
Eventually, the train will be part of a new exhibit within a new building that is being planned.
“Union Pacific donated the locomotive to our foundation, and we have a loan agreement with the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Virginia, for them to give us a helicopter just like Marine One that flew President and Mrs. Bush during the presidency,” Finch said. “We’re going to be constructing a new building to house both the train and the chopper and will probably include a restaurant that serves sandwiches, soups and salads, which is one of the things that’s been lacking here—some type of eating facility. The plan is to have everything in place and open by his 100th birthday, on June 12, 2024.”
The locomotive also has historical significance. When President Bush passed away in November 2018, the train engine was sent to the Houston suburb of Spring, and a baggage car was modified with windows on both sides so viewers could see the former president’s casket as it made the trip from Houston to College Station. Thousands of mourners lined the tracks along the 100-mile final journey.
“Originally there was only going to be the locomotive and the casket car, but he was assisting with his final plans while he was still alive, and President Bush wanted family members and select friends to be able to ride the train as well,” Finch said. “He told his chief of staff to include a single passenger car, telling her, ‘This will be a great way for everybody to get on the train after the funeral and have lunch.’ The chief of staff said, ‘Sir, you won’t be eating lunch,’ and President Bush said, ‘Well, at least I’ll be on the train.’ So they added the passenger car, and it turned out to be perfect after all.”
President Bush is buried on the grounds of the library and museum along with his wife, Barbara Bush, who died seven months before him, in April 2018, and their daughter Robin, who died in October 1953 at the age of 31/2.
The library and museum welcomes tens of thousands of visitors each year, and among them have been a number of celebrities and world leaders.
“While President Bush was still alive, we had all of the living presidents here. President Bush, his son George W., Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were all here at the same time when we had a benefit to raise money for victims of Hurricane Harvey,” Finch said. “Lady Gaga was here and gave a concert at the event. It was amazing, and we raised millions of dollars.”
Mikhail Gorbachev, Tony Blair, John Major and Billy Graham have also visited over the years. And as they say, politics makes strange bedfellows.
“Ted Kennedy was here, which was rather unique in that he and President Bush were from opposite sides of the aisle, but President Bush worked with him on education policy, and they became friends,” Finch said. “Nancy Pelosi is another kind of unusual one, but it shows what a great influence he had. He was truly a gentleman.”
Aside from being a great attraction, the library also serves as a magnificent source for research material. Virtually all of the letters, memos and declassified papers related to the Bush presidency can be found at the library.
“We made a conscious effort when we got here to get as much of the materials declassified as we could,” Finch said. “I’ll give my staff a whole lot of credit for doing that. They did the easy stuff first, then began work on the hard items that required contacting one or many agencies like the CIA, NSA [National Security Agency], Department of Defense and State Department. For instance, the battle plans for the first Gulf War—those would have been classified. Well, we now know where those troops were because they went there and did their job, so that material is no longer sensitive. A lot of that’s been declassified, and a lot of the foreign government information, such as any time the president wrote a letter to a foreign head of state, it was considered at some level of classification, so a lot of that stuff might still be classified.”
While many of the materials are digitized, there are many letters that exist in their original hard copies. All told, millions of pieces of material are available for public viewing at the library. Some items, however, are redacted to protect the privacy of individuals involved.
“We review the records for privacy, national security and some other things,” Finch said. “If it’s a letter from someone who might be mentally unstable and they are writing the president, that letter generally will have the name redacted because there’s no point in embarrassing somebody who didn’t know that their letter was going to be released.”
Regardless of anyone’s political leanings, the George H.W. Bush Library and Museum is a place to learn, relive and study an important time in our nation’s history. While he may not have been born here in Texas, George H.W. Bush got here as soon as he could and made it his home.
“The first time I met him, it was hard to get a word out because I was in awe,” Finch said. “But after the 20th or 30th time, you can talk a little more freely. Both President and Mrs. Bush were wonderful, down-to-earth people who were just so kind and giving. They are truly missed, and this facility pays homage to both of them.”