Commissioning Ceremony for USS George H.W. Bush (Norfolk, VA)

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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. …