A Former President's Mad Dash to 80

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Former President George H.W. Bush is the only person on this planet who can casually prowl by jet, ship and train the upper reaches of power from London to Beijing, dine intimately with heads of state, call the President of the U.S. when he wants, e-mail any of 14 grandchildren about school and baseball ("Astros might go to the World Series"), talk details with a handyman making repairs on the house that has been his spiritual home for eight decades, track menacing chipmunks in the flower beds and then turn and embrace a visiting billionaire.

Not to mention at 5:30 one recent morning bang on a houseguest's bedroom door, elbow it open and deliver a tray of hot coffee and grapefruit wedges and then trumpet the start of an adventure that would in a few hours take him inside the roaring wind tunnel at Fort Bragg. There, in the levitating blast of air, he grins and trains for free fall from an airplane, looking like Buck Rogers (his era) in helmeted black zip-up, forming an untethered star with half a dozen new buddies of the Army's Golden Knights Parachute Team. "It's the greatest," he says.


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Bush is rushing madly into his 80th birthday June 12, when there will be a Houston celebration ("41@80") involving thousands — including a certain U.S. President and a couple dozen sports, TV and movie stars blowing candles and kisses. The next day: Bush's fourth parachute jump (counting his WW II bailout), at Texas A&M in College Station.

"The country is doing pretty darn well," he insists, "but the war in Iraq is a large problem. There's a lot of what Jimmy Carter called 'malaise' around. I give total support to what the President does — without any reservation."

Much of his time now goes to lectures ("Got to pay the bills"), to his special causes, like the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and to talking with American soldiers, the wounded and the families of casualties. He holds no higher heroes in his crowded life, and when he said so to the troops at Fort Bragg, there was thunderous approval.

Soon he's off to pursue the great coho salmon in Newfoundland, cross the Rockies in a special Union Pacific train and jet across the Atlantic to hunker down on the banks of England's Test River, where Bush was told a fellow named William Shakespeare fished for trout. "Ah, the Bard and me along the Test," he spoofs. "They say that you are not a man until you have been to the Great Wall and fished the Test. I've been to the Great Wall. I'll be a man."

In this season there has been London and Kiev and Zurich. Later there will be the Chrissie Evert tennis tournament. He turned her down at first because he ached so badly after last year, then rethought and e-mailed her, "O.K. Can't give up on show-biz tennis." All the while he invokes Satchel Paige: "Don't look back. Something may be gaining on you."

"I've got goals," declares Bush, taking a few minutes off for lunch on his Kennebunkport, Maine, patio, starting with a hefty glass of sherry and finishing with "a scoop and a half" of Blue Bell ice cream shipped up from Texas. He wants to go to sea on the George H.W. Bush, a nuclear-powered carrier scheduled for completion in 2008. He hopes to accept an invitation from former Chinese President Jiang Zemin to attend the 2008 Beijing Olympics. "I reminded him of that the other day, 'You invited me,' and he said, 'Oh, yes, you'll be my guest.'"

Bush confesses that while he has the zest of a 50-year-old, his body sometimes hesitates. He stormed around the other day looking for his glasses, and an aide pointed out they were on the end of his nose. He has rented a movie and looked at Barbara 10 minutes into it as they both realized they'd seen it before. But then he ticks off his surviving indulgences — golf, tennis, fishing, horseshoes, hunting quail and the new boat, Fidelity III, a 34-ft. Fountain V hull. "I love it. I hit 68 m.p.h. the other day."

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