Louisville woman recalls time as key member of George H.W. Bush’s staff

Louisville woman recounts service under George H.W. Bush

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Laura Melillo Barnum was a key part of George H. W. Bush’s White House staff.

At the time, the Louisville native was the youngest Special Assistant in the history of the White House.

Laura Melillo Barnum talked to WAVE 3 News about her time with the late President Bush.
Laura Melillo Barnum talked to WAVE 3 News about her time with the late President Bush. (Source: WAVE 3 News)

Today, Barnum is among 25 people on number 41′s Presidential Advisory Council tasked with making sure that his legacy is protected and told.

WAVE 3 News Anchor Shannon Cogan spoke with her Thursday, after she returned from attending the services for her former boss in Washington, DC.

Barnum knew early on Bush had just hours left to live. A text was sent to the Bush Advisory Council, part of the Bush Library and Foundation, which she serves on. It read CAVU -- an acronym familiar to pilots which stands for “ceiling and visibility unlimited.”

“It’s all positive and optimistic,” Barnum said. “So that was our kind of secret code.”

Barnum said part of the job on the council was to assist the president in planning his funeral services. She said it was something he resisted early on, but then after being hospitalized with pneumonia, took it very seriously.

“He chose all the readings, where everyone was, who the speakers were -- down to where people would sit,” Barnum said.

She said he even planned the 70 mile train ride.

”Going from Houston to Texas A&M... that was important to him,” Barnum said.

She has kept all of the letters he has sent her over the years, including from their time in the White House, such as after the Economic Summit in 1990. He wrote a letter that said:

“This major event is history now, but Barbara and I will always be grateful.”

Another letter was handwritten following a trip to Moscow in June of 1989 and said, “Thanks for your help on this complicated but successful trip.”

This is one of many letters from the president to Laura Melillo Barnum.
This is one of many letters from the president to Laura Melillo Barnum. (Source: Laura Melillo Barnum)

He continued to write her letters even after they both left the White House.

Barnum eventually took a job as Executive Director of the Yum! Brands Foundation and Global Community Investment. She now works as a consultant for various companies.

“The letters are very significant about the type of person he was, because he cared,” Barnum said. “He wrote (a letter) when my father passed. Wrote one every time I had a new position. My children have letters from him saying, ‘Welcome to the world.’”

Barnum spent time with the Bush’s in Kennebunkport, Maine just this year. She clearly remembers the last thing her former boss said to her.

”He looks up at me and said, ‘Don’t be a stranger,’ and I gave them hugs and turned around," she said. “He knew.”

She said Bush was “funny and fun” and made people want to follow him. She said he “always wanted to know everything going on in our life. If we were happy, if we were sad.”

She recalls receiving word that her grandfather died when she was traveling with Bush and his wife. They had her sit down for tea, asked her all about her grandfather, and even when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called, they said “We don’t have time. We’re talking to Laura right now.”

Barnum said even after learning he lost his bid for re-election, he remained an optimist. He saw her crying and pulled her up and told her, “Turn off the waterworks. Everything happens for a reason. We did a great job and we should be proud.”

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