Ex-White House Correspondent Recalls George H.W. Bush: A Lousy Campaigner and a Deeply Caring Person
December 5, 2018
The ones who knew him best use words like decent, caring, patriotic. Former President George H.W. Bush, who died Friday at 94, was a good man.
He stood on the U.S. Capitol steps on his inauguration day and said his purpose, America’s purpose, “is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.” He meant it.
He was sentimental, loving, brave. His wife, Barbara, once told me that her husband didn’t get the credit he deserved for being “caring and sensitive and funny.” She was right.
For many years I traveled the country and the world covering Bush, and that proximity gave me a sense of the 41st president that others might not have seen from afar.
In hindsight, his virtues, his sense of duty, bipartisanship and, yes, even his respect for the journalists who covered him, seem charmingly old-fashioned — and passe.
From Day One, as he strolled the White House lawn with his big family, it was clear he just loved being president.
After eight long years in enforced vice presidential obscurity, Bush’s move to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in 1989 couldn’t have been sweeter.
Mind you, he was good-natured about his understudy job. “You die, I fly,” he’d joke about all the dignitaries’ funerals he’d attend as the expendable No. 2.
Much of his adult life was spent in elected or appointed public office so his list of friends was mammoth. He and Barbara kept a fabled Christmas card list accumulated over decades, and his friendships were tight and enduring.
Many of those friends stopped by to see the vice president when they were in Washington. They’d sit in his office and gab with their pal. Bush would open a bottom drawer in his desk, stacked high with his trinkets — boxes and boxes of vice presidential tie clasps. He’d reach in, grab a few and toss them to his visitors. They’d scramble to catch them midair.
When he became president, the gift store expanded. You’d often see him turn to his aide for a presidential penknife or a stickpin to give away. He once fished around in his pocket to find a tie clip to affix to the Army-issue pajamas of a wounded soldier he visited in Texas on a New Year’s Day long ago.
As for his wife’s assessment that he was “caring and sensitive and funny” there was ample evidence of all three.
Sensitive: Well-known in his family as a crier, Bush fretted he’d get teary in public. So, he’d usually have his wife along when he’d visit hospitals or children with disabilities, letting her handle the hard part. It wasn’t a surefire solution. When the Bushes visited the bedsides of wounded soldiers at Fort Sam Houston, I saw his eyes fill with tears after he turned to leave.
Caring? When Bush got word in the early 1990s that Jerome Watson, the respected Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times, was very ill, Bush called me at my desk at the Tribune to ask for Jerry’s phone number. He was offering to use the considerable Bush clout for a consultation with some of the country’s best oncologists at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center. Then Bush called Jerry to tell him how much he respected his journalism. In today’s bitter climate when the president denigrates the press daily, sometimes hourly, that seems almost unimaginable.
Bush was funny — in his own way. He was not a natural storyteller like Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, but he had a sense of humor, often at his own expense. He picked up comic Dana Carvey’s signature line from his Bush imitation on “Saturday Night Live” — “wouldn’t be prudent” — and mocked himself. Carvey even got an invitation to a sleepover at the Bush White House.
Bush liked to tell corny jokes: “Did you hear the one about the duck that went into the bar? Bartender looked at the duck and said, ‘Your pants are down.’” On a campaign trip in 1992, he told the joke to the folks at the Waffle House in Spartanburg, S.C. When they looked at him, puzzled, the Most Powerful Man on Earth gamely explained: Ducks? Covered in down? Get it?
Presidential perks include lots of gear, gizmos and electronics, and Bush reveled in them. His limo had a loud speaker — he called it “Mr. Microphone” — and he’d gleefully issue orders to his grandkids (and errant reporters) from his talking car.
In the family living quarters on the second floor of the White House, Bush’s study had five televisions, 11 remotes and the mother of all remotes, one the size of a paperback book. Barbara Bush once held it aloft and pronounced, “This is why wives leave their husbands.”
Bush was a preppy — Andover, Yale — from a prominent, wealthy New England family. Unlike many ego-heavy politicians with his background, he never thought he had hit a triple. He knew he’d been born on third base.
Despite the elite upbringing, he didn’t like what he viewed as the more effete world of sailing. His preference was his cigarette boat, Fidelity. Manning the throttle, Bush took a special thrill in making a ride along the harsh Maine coast a test of courage for his passengers who had to hold on for dear life as ocean spray whipped their faces.
Bush’s mom, Dorothy, had drilled in him from boyhood that it was impolite to be boastful. That kind of modesty is a handicap for any politician. Having trouble bragging about himself was one reason he was a lousy campaigner. Another was that he often would get lost on the way to the end of a sentence. He was renowned for garbled syntax and stepping on his applause lines.
It was during the 1988 presidential primary in New Hampshire when I saw firsthand how a man of good manners gives someone the finger. Looking around to make sure there were no cameras, Bush opened his suit jacket to shield his hand from all but a small group of reporters, then playfully flipped them off.
The presidency gave Bush the perfect place to throw a party, and he and his feisty wife entertained frantically. There was a gathering of some sort almost nightly at the White House or the presidential retreat, Camp David.
Bush didn’t fully retire until the end. Before illness forced him into a wheelchair, Bush would put on a starched shirt, a tie and a navy blazer about once a month, sit in front of a camera crew at his Maine home and tape various public-service spots for good causes that asked for his support. He looked presidential — from the waist up. Out of camera range, he wore khaki shorts and moccasins so he could quickly hustle over to his boat or to the golf course where he would play 18 holes so fast it came to be known as aerobic golf.
In Washington, Maine and his final home in Houston, Bush was never happier than when surrounded by family — his five children, their spouses, 17 grandchildren (they called him “Gampy”) and eight great-grandchildren.
George Herbert Walker Bush was a good and decent man with a ferocious love of family who served his country with unvarnished patriotism and felt privileged to lead his remarkable life.
Ellen Warren was a Tribune senior correspondent and a White House correspondent during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. She covered his campaigns from 1980 until he lost his bid for re-election in 1992.
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