Editor’s Note: James A. Gagliano is a CNN law enforcement analyst and a retired FBI supervisory special agent. He also is an adjunct assistant professor at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. Follow him on Twitter: @JamesAGagliano. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Though not unexpected, the news of President George H.W. Bush’s death deeply affected me. When I first learned of his passing on Saturday morning, I stared blankly at the television screen, as the memory of a moment long ago abruptly flashed before me.
While I did not work in the late president’s administration, our unexpected meeting – on a stage at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, some 27 years ago – forever impacted me.
It was shortly before New Agent Class (NAC) 91-6 was scheduled to graduate from the FBI Academy in May of 1991. We were all excited to become freshly minted FBI special agents, assigned – according to the needs of the bureau – across the country, staffing field divisions large and small, and soon to be imbued with sober and grave responsibilities enforcing federal law.
“I have some news for you – both good and bad,” our staff counselor, supervisory special agent Don Peck, noted during our final week of training. “Look,” Peck continued, “we’re forced to push commencement services back two days,” to audible groans from the class.
Peck shot us a withering glare, immediately silencing the murmuring of NAC 91-6. “The good news is that the President of the United States will provide your commencement address.”
The year 1991 could surely be considered quainter times. I knew none of my classmates’ political affiliations, nor did any of them know mine. And still we all broke into a spontaneous ovation.
After all, the President would be handing out our FBI badges and credentials.
Though we lived in far less partisan times, Bush had, at least in part, a political purpose in making an appearance in front of our class. He was in support of the Omnibus Anti-Crime Bill that Democrats and Republicans had been hotly debating in both chambers of Congress. Bush, a Republican, pushed for strengthening laws and giving police broader provisions related to obtaining evidence without court-authorized search warrants. Gun control, sentencing guidelines and habeus corpus provision debates afforded the President the opportunity – in front of a largely sympathetic law enforcement gathering at Quantico – to have his voice heard on the issues.
Shortly after the President’s crisp enunciation of his policy desires, I heard my name called and strode confidently across the stage, shaking hands along the way with FBI Director William S. Sessions and Attorney General Richard Thornburgh.
When I arrived in front of the President, I straightened a bit, extended my hand for the obligatory handshake photo-op and advised Bush that it was an honor to have him in attendance.
“Thank you, son,” the 41st President of the United States replied, “I appreciate your commitment to this nation. Make us proud and congratulations.”
“Yes, sir. I will,” I responded. He softly patted my shoulder as I strode past him.
And, that was it. Fifteen words that I will never forget – from a President who valued public service so deeply that he made time to be at my graduation. Those words have shaped my professional career across many decades.
Bush deeply believed in the FBI motto of “Fidelity, Bravery and Integrity.” He’d lived those words during his adult life. Fidelity to his family and country. Bravery in the face of the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo axis of the early 1940s. And integrity in every government assignment he handled.
Quibble if you must with Bush on political issues, but no one can question the man’s integrity. His word was bond and his character unimpeachable – virtues, sadly, in short supply these days.
This humble man unknowingly shaped the conduct of a young, callow and fresh-faced special agent on a stage he would likely not have recalled. And yet, Bush forever changed my life on that bright, clear morning in 1991. He was, and ever shall remain for me, an ordinary man who lived an extraordinary life.
Rest in peace, sir.