President George Herbert Walker Bush’s death is a gut punch.
I was not part of his inner political circle or a close, personal friend. But I knew him for a number of years and worked for him as deputy White House press secretary. If you met George H.W. Bush, he made you feel as if you were in his inner circle. He was the most genuine person I’ve ever known. And nice. And kind. And gentle. And caring. He was a class act. And, above everything, a decent man.
He had great empathy, and cried quickly and sincerely, so often in fact that he would tone down some speeches so he wouldn’t break down in tears. He had a curious mind. He wanted views from many so he could consider all information before making a decision. He loved his country and his fellow citizens.
His death was not a shock, he had been ill, but what is a shock is accepting that this good man is not part of this world anymore. Though he now joins his wife of 73 years, Barbara who died in April, and his young daughter Robin who died from leukemia at age 4 in 1953.
The obits being run all over will give his proud story of service to his country and his fellow men and women, so I won’t repeat all that here. I will tell a few personal stories about him, if you’ll bear with me:
First, while serving as a deputy press secretary to President Reagan, I was among the staff in Santa Barbara, Calif., when the Democrats held their convention in 1988. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy had given a tough speech attacking Vice President Bush and each bullet point he punctuated with “where was George?” as he tried to make the case that Vice President Bush was absent from being involved in anything important The next day, we were preparing for the press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, to brief the press and we knew Marlin would be greeted with taunts from the press of “where was George?”
He told me to develop a response. It came to me quickly and, while I don’t have at hand a copy of what the statement was, it was a series of statements that began with “I’ll tell you where George was, he was….” And a similar series to Kennedy’s but this time rolling out the VP’s contributions to the Reagan Administration. When Marlin finally read it after waiting for the press to finish its chants, the reporters were silent.
Back in Washington the next week, we were in Marlin’s office, again preparing him for his daily press briefing, when the door opened and Vice President Bush poked his head in to say, “Marlin, that was great! You were the only one out there defending me!” Marlin smiled coyly but said nothing while Bush went on with his compliments. Marlin looked, embarrassed, at me and said, “Mr. Vice President, in truth…B. Jay wrote that.” The Vice President looked at me and said, “B. Jay? B. Jay can write?” and then he left.
Second, I had interviewed to be Bush’s press secretary a couple of times. Once when he was VP and again when he was putting his campaign staff together. Needless to say, I wanted the job. On the VP job, he decided not to fill it right away. On the campaign job, I interviewed with his chief of staff, Craig Fuller, and then with the vice president who made the interview almost a chat between friends. As I said, he had that ability.
A couple of Mondays later the VP’s office said it would be making an announcement of the campaign press secretary that day. A little later, I got a call from Fuller. When I answered I said, I’m guessing since you’re calling me the day of the announcement, I didn’t get the job. No, he said, you didn’t and he told me that Sheila Tate was to be named. I said well, she’s a fine choice but can you tell me why Sheila and not me? Fuller said, at the risk of a lawsuit from you, the honest answer is that the Vice President wanted to name the first woman to the job. Honesty. And, candidly, she was probably a better choice than I was anyway.
Third, even in his post-Oval Office days, “41” was very kind to me. Once, I asked him to be in a film I was working on for a client in my PR firm days, and the day I went to his Kennebunkport (Maine) family summer home to tape it, he came bounding over and said, “guess who I’m about to play golf with!” Not waiting for my guess he said, “Freddy Couples and Davis Love!” and he was honestly excited that he was playing with them, not thinking that the two pros probably were more excited to play with him. The second was when my wife and I asked him if we would author the forward to a book we wrote on my former boss the late Secretary of Commerce Mac Baldrige, who was a close friend of Bush’s for decades. He quickly responded yes. (In fact, it was thanks to Bush that Baldrige was in the Reagan Cabinet.)
Last, in his first year in office, the Republican National Committee was having several months of bad press and bad decisions. They got attention because the brilliant and precocious Lee Atwater was the chairman and someone Bush cared about a lot. The RNC communications director was taking a bullet and resigned from the committee and Bush asked me to take his place. A bit of an awkward career move. Normally folks worked at political committees and then moved on to Administration jobs, not vice versa.
During my exit interview with President Bush he said he appreciated me, in his words, making the sacrifice to go from the White House to the RNC, but, he said, “I need someone with grey hair up there.” I truly appreciated his faith in me and the belief that he thought I had the wisdom to calm things down, but I was 41 years old and the grey I have now had not even peeked through yet.
George Herbert Walker Bush was a fine man and a very good President. He gets more credit as the years go by for his contributions, especially in foreign policy and in getting the Americans with Disability Act passed. For the various accolades he deserves for his long life of public service, he deserves many more for being a good and loyal friend to many.
He was taught by his mother not to brag about himself, ever. And he didn’t, making it a bit difficult when running campaigns to take credit for things.
One last story that says a lot about the formation of such a modest and good man:
When a young man, Bush came home and told his mother, Dorothy, he had scored three goals in a soccer match. Mrs. Bush said, “that’s nice, George, how did the team do?”
Every team he ever was on did well.
RIP, President Bush.