Correction 11:15 a.m. Oct. 1| As Lamar Smith prepares to leave Congress, he planted a tree that will grow up to 180 feet tall on the Capitol grounds. The Scotch elm honors a fellow Texas Republican, former President George H.W. Bush.
“This was a very, very happy memory and one of, I guess, my last initiatives,” he said. “It’s special, and it’s not really partisan and political.”
With the House wrapping up work to head home until after the midterm elections, “it was a good ending to this Congress,” Smith said.
The idea took form a couple months ago when Smith was spending a “rare weekend” in Washington. He was walking around the Capitol grounds and noticing the trees, many of which are dedicated to notable people, including former members and first ladies.
“Then I walked by a tree that was dead. They were removing the tree and I thought, ‘Well, maybe I could recommend a tree be planted in someone’s honor,’” he recalled.
Smith said it only took him a couple seconds to decide Bush should be that person.
“I feel like the first President Bush was one of the most honorable people I’d ever met,” he said. “Of course, he’s not necessarily in the best of health, and I thought this would be a good way to give a tribute to his life.”
He returned to his office and asked an intern to research how to get a tree dedicated. She said it would take a letter to the Architect of the Capitol, which they sent.
The response read “sort of like a college rejection letter,” Smith said. The AOC said they receive thousands of nominations but would take it into consideration.
“I let it go and thought, ‘That’s the end of that,’” he said.
Just two weeks later, he got a surprise. His tree had been approved, and he could choose a date for the dedication.
While 28 members of Congress and two first ladies have trees on the Capitol grounds, no other presidents do. Smith joked at the ceremony on Wednesday that the AOC should keep it that way.
Bush’s grandson Sam LeBlond, the son of Dorothy Bush, attended the event and read a letter from the former president.
Smith said he saw Bush’s dedication to public service firsthand. In 1992, the president signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in San Antonio, Smith’s home town. Bush invited Smith, who had been in Congress for seven years at that point, to ride on Air Force One.
He was sitting back in the regular seating, and the president and first lady Barbara Bush requested he sit in the forward cabin with them.
“I kept thinking to myself, ‘Shouldn’t the president be making some phone calls? Writing letters?’ [Which was] what he was known for. I really, really, felt privileged and obviously flattered,” he recalled.
He added, “That was an example of the decency that I’m talking about, unselfishness and the generosity of spirit. He knew that I was going to support him. He didn’t need to spend one minute with me.”
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Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the date that the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed.