POLITICS and nature combined to turn the groundbreaking for the George Bush Presidential Library Center into something Republicans have been doing a lot of lately - enjoying their moment in history.
The former president and several hundred guests traveled in a vintage luxury train from Houston for Wednesday's ceremony. Emerald pastures and ponds brimming with early winter rains adorned the route. Wildfowl flew among oaks not yet browned by winter. Pumping oil wells were as numerous as flags on the Fourth of July, and mild sunshine played over all.
Equally agreeable to this display of American bounty was the welcome for Mr. Bush at Texas A&M University in College Station - a Republican bastion - where his library and affiliated George Bush School of Government and Public Service are to be built.
The local high-school band, brass instruments gleaming, performed the expected military marching tunes. Members of a Texas A&M ROTC unit held their sabers aloft, forming an honorary arch for Bush to pass under.
Such gestures were a reminder of the adulation often accorded presidents when out of office, as opposed to when they are in.
If Texas A&M was chosen because the university's offer to build an $84-million facility was the most lavish proposal, it's also true that Aggies love George Bush enough to raise the money. Both Texas A&M and Bush ``stand for that moral leadership that's missing in a lot of places,'' says student-body president Brooke Leslie. Texas A&M has one of the largest college Republican organizations in the country, she adds.
Bush is more than a Republican; he's a veteran, notes ROTC member Mark Casanova. That counts at Texas A&M, where hats must be removed in the Memorial Student Center in honor of Aggies who fell in battle. Texas A&M provided 1,300 officers for the US military in World War II. At least 300 Aggies served in the Gulf War. Eight have earned the rare Congressional Medal of Honor. Today only 40 percent of Corps members pursue military careers, partly for lack of opportunities in a military whose downsizing, ironically, began under Bush.
Of course, the Soviet Union collapsed. The Warsaw Pact disintegrated. The Berlin Wall toppled. Germany reunified. ``We faced a new world everyday, it seemed,'' Bush told a thousand supporters at the groundbreaking. ``The archives will help show how we answered the call to lead as no other nation could.''
As for his domestic agenda, well, Congress chose to fight him, Bush said. But the mid-term elections show that Americans were looking for changes he had espoused, like a balanced-budget amendment and a line-item veto, he added.
When Bush reached for a shovel to break ground at the 90-acre site, his action seemed to take on a larger symbolism. Looking on was his son George W. Bush, the governor-elect of Texas. The former president was erecting a monument to his legacy, while the governor-elect will soon take office for the first time. The audience sensed that the torch was being passed.
And that was cause for celebration. Around campus the traditional Aggie cheer, a shrill WHOOP!, was loud in appreciation of the former president, but louder in encouragement of the governor-elect. It was George W. Bush who hung around to talk to the press after the ceremoney. ``It's the beginning of a new phase of his life,'' the younger Bush said of his father. ``It took him awhile to recover from being president. All of a sudden you wake up and there's nothing to do.''
The former president plans to teach at the new facility. Next September he will convene former leaders of Canada, Britain, the Soviet Union, and other countries to give an ``oral history'' lesson on the demise of communism. He also said he had more to learn, which took his son by surprise.
``Probably a computer class,'' the governor-elect speculated. ``to bring him into the modern age.''