STARKVILLE — George Herbert Walker Bush and Gillespie V. “Sonny” Montgomery were both elected to Congress on Nov. 8, 1966 and both took office on Jan. 3, 1967. Unknown to either of them at the time, it was the beginning of a long and meaningful friendship.
As freshmen in Congress, central Mississippi’s Montgomery, the Democrat, and southeast Texan Bush, the Republican, became fast friends who spent a substantial amount of time in do-or-die, dollar-a-game paddle ball games in the House gymnasium. Paddle ball is a first cousin to racquet ball and Sonny would tell me years later that they played not just for the dollar, but for blood and bragging rights.
Both men were tall and angular, well-mannered and ambitious. The competition demonstrated in their paddle ball matches carried over into everything. Montgomery served in the House for 30 years and never lost a floor vote. Not one.
Bush left the House after two terms, but climbed the long ladder of the executive branch of government. The Bush-Montgomery friendship never wavered. They trusted each other and they made each other laugh. Both had served their country and both valued that bond between old soldiers.
President George W. Bush wrote of his youthful observations from the famed paddle ball matches: “Sonny was dressed in the regalia of his beloved alma mater, Mississippi State University. He was a wily player, who attacked the game with enthusiasm, energy, and an occasional rebel yell predicating one of his famous ‘kill shots.’ Thus began my friendship with Sonny Montgomery … he was adored by Mom and Dad as well as all of the Bush children, including me.”
Montgomery, a lifelong bachelor, was not merely a political acquaintance of the Bush clan, he was treated as a member of the family. He spent holidays with the Bushes at the White House, at Camp David, and at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. At Montgomery’s funeral in Meridian in 2006, an inconsolable Bush said: “One of the great joys of our days in the White House was the Sundays that Sonny would come over. Every president needs a friend to be alone and relax with. For me, that person was, and always will be, Sonny Montgomery.”
Bush gave a speech in Meridian at Peavey Electronics on Dec. 3, 1991 on his economic policies, globalization and trade. Peavey’s thriving sound equipment business was trading with 103 countries and was a perfect backdrop for his policies in Montgomery’s hometown.
Bush was a commencement speaker at Mississippi State University in May 1989, and later returned to MSU to honor Rep. Sonny Montgomery at halftime of the MSU-Arkansas game in November 2000.
From their paddle ball competition in the House gym in 1967, who could have known that both men would ultimately receive Presidential Medals of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor — Montgomery received the honor from President Bush 43 in 2005. Bush 41 received the honor from President Barack Obama in 2011.
Perhaps more relevant in terms of assessing the impact of the Bush family’s relationship with Mississippi is the fact that from 1980 until 2008, the Reagan-Bush political tree flourished in Mississippi. Republicans Trent Lott and Thad Cochran succeeded Democrats Jim Eastland and John Stennis in the U.S. Senate.
Kirk Fordice became the first GOP Mississippi governor since Reconstruction. Haley Barbour would lead the GOP to dominate state government in the executive and legislative branches – and usher in the current generation of GOP leaders including Phil Bryant, Tate Reeves, and Philip Gunn.
The kid who once watched the late 1960s paddle ball games, President George W. Bush, visited Mississippi more than any other president in history — 19 times — and 14 of those visits were related to recovery from Hurricane Katrina. From Montgomery, the Bushes learned to appreciate Mississippi and Mississippians and how fortuitous those relationships were for us.
Of course, that was back when working across the aisle and compromise weren’t dirty words.