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Commissioning Ceremony for USS George H.W. Bush (Norfolk, VA)
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Norfolk, VA, Saturday, January 10, 2009

Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, Governor. It is a special pleasure to be here with the Bush family, and so many distinguished military and civilian leaders, on this historic day.
There is no one more worthy of having the last Nimitz-class aircraft carrier named in his honor than our 41st President – the last of the World War II generation to serve as commander-in-chief. By now, everyone knows the story of a fledgling pilot so eager to serve his country when it was attacked, and so brave in the heat of battle. Less well known is that, as a 17-year-old, he considered joining the Royal Canadian Air Force. He thought his enlistment would be even quicker. Just think, if history had turned out differently, this event might have taken place in Halifax Harbor. And it would be a lot colder.
There is pomp and ceremony and observance of Navy tradition today, as well there should be. I’d like, however, to speak briefly about the decent and modest public servant I know – somebody with a sense of humor, about Washington and about himself. Of course, if you have a wife like Barbara Bush, his amazing partner for 64 years, you both better have a good sense of humor.
Some of you might recall that the cartoonist Garry Trudeau made quite a good living at President Bush’s expense in his cartoon strip, “Doonesbury.” The strip often featured 41’s invisible other self – “President Skippy” – as an asterisk. One morning when the President had stepped out of the Oval Office, we had a photographer come in and take a picture of National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, Chief of Staff John Sununu, and me, all of us talking and gesturing vehemently at the President’s empty chair. We later presented a large, framed copy of the photo to him and we inscribed it: “To President Skippy, from the gang that knows you best.”
He loved it, but suddenly turned stern, jumped up out of his chair and said, “The press has to know about this.” He strode into the White House briefing room without any forewarning, nearly causing a press riot. He showed the startled reporters the picture, said there was clearly a conspiracy against him inside the administration, and then attributed the whole thing to his spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater – who, didn’t have a clue what was going on.
And some of you no doubt remember – and may have been recipients of – President Bush’s nearly daily bestowal of an award to the American official who most obviously fell asleep in a meeting with the President of the United States. The first annual honoree was Brent Scowcroft; the second annual honoree, and for some reason the last, was the then-Secretary of Defense [Dick Cheney].
As commander-in-chief, President Bush had a courage and a toughness that impressed all those who worked for him. At the same time he was, and is, a man of feeling – especially where men and women in uniform are concerned. Early in his administration he came here to Norfolk to pay tribute to American crewmen who had perished aboard the USS Iowa in a tragic accident. As he spoke of the fallen, he appeared to rush his delivery, raising eyebrows among the reporters, who thought he was going through the motions. But those of us close to him knew something they didn’t: President Bush was so moved on that day by the sacrifice of those 47 sailors, that if he had not sped to the end of his remarks, he never would have made it through them at all.
He made life-and-death decisions as President. He thought hard about our role in the world. To lead this country, the first in history to rise to global preeminence without seeking it, takes a special combination of energy and restraint, pragmatism and idealism – qualities that President Bush displayed in full when he brilliantly managed the end of the Cold War, the reunification of Germany, and the liberation of millions of people long oppressed.
He once said that a peaceful, prosperous international order required “the leadership, the power, and yes, the conscience of the United States of America.” This ship that bears his name, this ship we commission today, embodies all three. With its advanced military hardware; its sophisticated communications; and above all its skilled and dedicated crew – it will ply the oceans to the far corners of the earth as an instrument of war when necessary, but always as a symbol of American strength and credibility.
I would like to close with words spoken at the christening of this carrier by a son of today’s honoree. Our current commander said then: “The men and women of the United States military represent the best of America. And they deserve the best America can give them. And the George H.W. Bush is the best America can give them.”
Mr. President, we would all agree. Ladies and gentlemen, it is my honor and privilege to introduce the President of the United States, George W. Bush.