President George H.W. Bush: Some personal reflections

December 5, 2018 11:00

He glanced at his wristwatch.
 
One hour and 15 minutes into a 90-minute town hall-style presidential debate in Richmond, Va., on October 15, 1992, President George H.W. Bush seemed bored as independent candidate Ross Perot pontificated about education policy.
 
He glanced at his wristwatch, as if to signal, when is this Godforsaken ordeal going to be over?
 
 
End it did, less than three weeks later, on November 3, when Perot would syphon enough votes from President Bush so that Gov. Bill Clinton (D-Ark.) – who had embraced the debate’s format to demonstrate that he understood the concerns of “real people”– won the election to become the 42nd commander in chief of the United States.
 
Mr. Bush’s seeming detachment from issues important to the “common” person had played a role in his political demise. Early in the 1992 campaign, the president seemed amazed when he saw a supermarket price scanner; his critics quickly used the incident to portray him as an out-of-touch northeastern elitist, not the down-to-earth Texan and country music fan he claimed to have been.
 
That year’s election ended George H.W. Bush’s presidency at one term, contrasting his lifelong devotion to public service, his intense commitment to helping people, and his truly unpretentious personality.
 
I remember George Herbert Walker Bush through my personal experiences with him, which, although limited, were momentous for the then-local radio news director I was when he served as vice president in the Reagan Administration and, then, as the 41st president of the United States.
 
I first saw Mr. Bush in person when, as vice president, he held a news conference while attending a Republican Party political event in Springfield, Mo., where I was news director at KTTS-AM/FM radio. KTTS was a powerful country music station that happened to have the state’s largest radio news department.
 
Maybe it was the fact the news conference was on a Sunday morning. Maybe it was because he was upset about something. Maybe he was annoyed at having to hold a news conference in a small market with local reporters. Whatever the reason, my main memory of that day is that he was cranky. His answers were, mostly, curt. Having heard about what a gentleman Mr. Bush was, I was surprised by his demeanor.
 
Fast forward to when Mr. Bush was chief executive. It was the summer of 1991 and he had, a few months earlier, prosecuted a successful, short, and relatively bloodless war to liberate Kuwait from its Iraqi invaders. He was still enjoying the astronomical popularity ratings that he had earned from that military victory.
 
In late June, we learned that the president wanted to commemorate the wave of patriotism that swelled across the land following the first Gulf War by attending an Independence Day parade in a small town in the middle of the country. The White House chose Marshfield, Mo., what we would call today an exurb of Springfield, about 20 miles away. Marshfield had, and still has, the oldest Independence Day parade west of the Mississippi River.
 
That meant that the president would fly into Springfield aboard Air Force One – he was the first president to use the Boeing 747s that are still in the presidential fleet today – the evening of July 3, spend the night at the nicest hotel in town, the University Plaza, then take Marine One to Marshfield the next morning to be in the parade.
 
Curt Brown, the general manager of KTTS-AM/FM, had a brilliant idea. The day before the president arrived, he went to the head housekeeper at the hotel and paid her to switch every radio in every room of the hotel to our station in the hope that President Bush would listen to us.
 
It apparently worked, because on the morning of July 4 as the presidential motorcade drove from the hotel to Marine One, the limousine carrying President and Mrs. Bush passed right by the news car in which I was sitting along the route. The president saw the call letters on the car, gave me a thumbs up, then picked up a microphone connected to the limo’s PA system and said, “Hi, Dan!”
 
Mr. Bush’s elevated approval ratings would not last. Along came a recession and the infamous betrayal of his 1988 campaign pledge, “Read my lips: No new taxes!” Then, in 1992, along also came an insurgent GOP challenger, Pat Buchanan; a young, energetic Democratic challenger, Clinton; and the third-party challenge from Perot.
 
To appease Buchanan, Mr. Bush gave him a prime-time speaking slot at that year’s Republican National Convention in Houston. Buchanan’s speech was dark, foreboding and in direct contrast to the president’s 1988 assurance of a “kinder, gentler nation.”
 
The president accepted the nomination of his party for a second term on August 20, his image somewhat tarnished by his tough primary campaign and the ominous tone of the convention. At that point, mission number one was to shore up his political base. So, the next day his first post-convention campaign stops were in two traditionally rock-ribbed Republican areas, Gulfport, Miss., and what was then the booming family-values tourist destination of Branson, Mo., about 45 minutes away from Springfield.
 
The Bush campaign offered me a chance to interview the president while he was en route to Branson. The only condition was that I would have to conduct the interview by phone, as Mr. Bush was flying aboard Air Force One from Gulfport to Branson.
 
Here is that interview.
 
President Bush held fond memories of the Branson rally, writing in his diary:
 
There was a tremendous rally in Branson, Missouri: Mo Bandy and Loretta Lynn and others. There were literally 15,000 people out there and I would have said even more. There were signs as far as you could see.
 
– Bush, George. All the Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings. P. 566. Scribner, 2013.
 
At the time the notion of a president bypassing the national media to grant an interview directly to a local reporter was still a relatively new concept. So it rankled some in the White House and national campaign press corps. Then-Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz, now the host of Fox News Channel’s “Media Buzz,” wrote a story about my interview, so novel a concept it was back then.
 
To be sure, my encounters with George H.W. Bush were not necessarily indicative of his dealings with the news media throughout his public life. While he maintained warm long-term relationships with many of the journalists who covered his life, particularly his presidency, he also had some notable not-so-pleasant run-ins with reporters.
 
Early in the 1988 campaign, Mr. Bush and then-“CBS Evening News” anchor Dan Rather “shouted at each other in a 10-minute interview about the Iran-contra affair on live national television,” reported The New York Times.
 
Late in the 1992 campaign, behind in the polls, President Bush’s re-election campaign distributed a bumper sticker carrying its version of today’s “enemy of the people” mantra, again, according to the Times:
 
President Bush has recently been hammering the news media almost as hard as he's been hammering Gov. Bill Clinton, drawing big laughs and cheers by displaying his favorite bumper sticker: "Annoy the Media: Re-elect Bush."
And, in fact, some annoying has been undertaken by some of Mr. Bush's fans, mainly harmless jeers and hisses, but here and there a bit of shoving, poking and hair pulling.
 
True to the quintessential goodness of the man that has been described since his death by so many who knew him well, Mr. Bush later admonished supporters who took the “annoy the media” phrase too literally by imploring them to “leave the traveling press alone.”
 
One person who covered the Bush 41 administration, former ABC News White House correspondent Sam Donaldson, told CNN this past weekend, “He was accessible. … And he also, I think, understood our job. … Presidents don’t like everything they read or see, but he understood what we were about.”
 
To paraphrase William Shakespeare’s Mark Antony in Julius Caesar, I write here not to canonize George Herbert Walker Bush, but to remember him.
 
In that process of recollection and reflection, I can’t help but wonder what might have happened on election day 1992, if George Herbert Walker Bush hadn’t glanced at his wristwatch.