As the son and brother to two U.S. presidents, and a two-term governor of Florida, John Ellis “Jeb” Bush is one of the most influential figures in America today. He’s viewed as a trailblazer on the national scene, an innovator in policy and governance, and a voice of wise counsel on issues facing our country and the world.
But it was a tender act of compassion in a time of desperate need that drew Jeb Bush into the hearts of the Armenian people, in America and in our homeland. It was in the earliest days after the Armenian earthquake—mere weeks after the cataclysm of December 1988—Jeb Bush announced he had volunteered to travel to the stricken country to deliver supplies to the victims. He would make the trip in the company of his 12-year-old son, George.
The fact that the son of the president-elect at the time would travel on such a mission to a Soviet republic drew international headlines. But Jeb Bush’s response was that it was merely an example of the “thousand points of light” his father had spoken about during the recent presidential campaign.
Even so, the reality that greeted the Bushes on the ground in Armenia was even more desperate than they had expected. “Just about every structure was off of its foundation,” a family member said. “There were people literally walking through the street with very little clothes on and starving.” In a television interview, Jeb Bush described a hospital visit to children injured in the tragedy as “something that’ll be with me and my son for the rest of our lives.”
A newspaper account painted a touching portrait of the trip. “With tears in his eyes, the son of President-elect George Bush presented food and gifts today to brighten the Christmas of children injured in Armenia’s earthquake,” it read. And then the article added this poignant quote from Bush himself: “This is probably the greatest Christmas gift I could give myself or my own son.”
In later years, President George H. W. Bush would say how his son’s act of compassion had even larger repercussions; he recalled Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev “telling me afterwards that when Jeb went to church in Armenia and shed a tear there, it did more for the U.S.-Russia relationship than anything I could possibly imagine.”
That theme of the power of outreach at a time of need would later drive Jeb Bush’s approach to executive governance. During his eight years as governor, from 1999 to 2007, he was widely applauded for leading improvements in Florida’s economy, environment, and healthcare, as well as for reforming its education system.
And his experience among the Armenian people, viewing their suffering as well as their will to survive, likewise left a strong impression—as shown in his proclamations designating April 24 as Armenian Martyrs Day. Jeb Bush has called on “the people of the United States to observe [the date] as a day of remembrance for all the victims of genocide, especially those of Armenian ancestry,” in the conviction that “recognition of this tragedy [would] educate people about genocide and may prevent future occurrences of genocides.”
In choosing Jeb Bush as the “Friend of the Armenians” for 2013, the Diocese cited his impressive tenure as the governor of Florida, and also recalled with great fondness that trip to Armenia after the earthquake. “Your expressions of compassion at that time—and the images of you and your son standing side-by-side with the Armenian people—truly fortified the friendship between America and what would shortly become the free Republic of Armenia.”
Marta Batmasian, a member of the FAR Board of Directors, accepted the award on behalf of Governor Bush at the Grand Banquet of the 111th Diocesan Assembly in Boca Raton, Fla., on Fri., May 3.