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One Giant Leap for Octogenarians

Former President Bush celebrates his birthday by skydiving -- with a little paratrooper help.

June 14, 2004|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Early Sunday, the morning after celebrating his 80th birthday, former President George H.W. Bush donned a yellow and black stretch suit and sneakers. He caught a plane to 13,500 feet -- a mere speck above the grassy flatlands of his presidential library complex here -- and jumped.

Then, a few hours later, he did it again.

"I felt no fear," the spry-looking octogenarian bragged to reporters afterward, swaggering to address the media from a small platform about 20 yards from where he had zoomed back to Earth and landed on his rear end, feet out.

Wind and low clouds prevented Bush from jumping solo, forcing him to perform both leaps while tied to a trained paratrooper.

A paratrooper commander later said there was concern that the former commander in chief would get disoriented in a cloud and miss his landing zone.

Still, Bush received a pin and a certificate for completing his fifth successful jump. A bronze star on the pin signified his first leap, as a 20-year-old Navy bomber pilot shot down by the Japanese over the Pacific in 1944.

Bush said he was disappointed not to have gone solo Sunday. But on landing, he was immediately surrounded by his famous family and friends -- among them his wife, Barbara; son Jeb, the governor of Florida; and former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev -- for a round of hugs, backslaps and handshakes.

His most notable son, President George W. Bush, did not attend the jumps at Texas A&M University, but he was at Houston's Minute Maid Park the night before for a celebrity-studded concert featuring country and gospel names such as Randy Travis, Michael W. Smith, Vince Gill and Amy Grant.

The president toasted his dad's pending leap as a statement to Father Time: -- "Take this, you old man."

The president left his ranch near Crawford, Texas, on Sunday morning to return to Washington.

After making his jumps, the senior Bush said: "This is a day of joy and a day of wonder for the Bush family, and certainly the old guy."

The day capped a weekend devoted to celebrating Bush's life and career -- from his World War II heroics to his jobs as ambassador to China and the United Nations, director of the CIA, head of the Republican National Committee, vice president and president.

The impetus for the two-day Bush blowout was raising money -- more than $55 million -- for three of the family's favorite charities: the George Bush Library Foundation, the Points of Light Foundation and the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

But after a week of tributes following the death of former President Reagan, the Bush events also turned a spotlight on a potentially longer-lasting legacy of Reagan's No. 2: the stewardship over America's current political dynasty.

The reminders were frequent -- down to the logo designed for the weekend itself -- "41@80" -- that invoked the nickname used in the family for the 41st president ever since his son was elected the 43rd.

A biographical video shown in Houston's baseball stadium before the Saturday night concert was replete with references to Jeb and the current president. The show included another convention-style video of the elder Bush's life, ending with a tribute from another potential political scion, presidential nephew George P. Bush, who wished "Gampy" a happy birthday.

The weekend also showcased a long-standing tension between the Bushes' disdain for self-aggrandizement -- the former president has strained over the years to avoid overuse of the word "I" -- and their embrace of a public role more akin to the British royals.

At the Saturday concert, the Bush family sat in a separate box beside the stage, situated beyond the pitcher's mound in the middle of the baseball field -- far from the crowd of 5,000 sitting in the seats directly behind home plate.

The show, emceed by CNN's Larry King, with help from sportscaster Jim Nantz, included tributes from tennis and baseball greats, along with a who's who of country music artists.

Besides Gorbachev, the audience included former Israeli Prime Minster Shimon Peres, former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

There was scant reference over the weekend to the November election, which if recent opinion polls hold up, could put the Bush dynasty at risk.

Dan Quayle, the former vice president under "41" and the honorary chairman of the charity fundraising drive, looked at the current president during a speech Saturday night and offered an assurance: "You're a great president too. Hang in there. You will prevail."

Tickets for the weekend cost anywhere from $100 to $1 million, depending on which events donors wanted to attend and how well they wanted to be treated.

Those who gave at least $250,000, for instance, received a luxury ride aboard a shiny silver and yellow train to College Station for the jump Sunday, followed by a barbecue lunch. They also received invitations for dinner with the Bushes at their apartment on the library grounds.

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