A good guy remembered
This week, our newspapers, television sets, and computer news feeds were filled with stories and tributes to President George H.W. Bush. Most begin with his prep school upbringing, his service as a Naval pilot in World War II, his education at Yale, his success in the Texas oil business, his career in Congress and how he failed in his initial run for the presidency.
Then, they pivoted to his service as UN Ambassador, envoy to China, CIA chief, vice president under Ronald Reagan and his triumphal election as president in 1988. After his defeat for re-election, he became a sort of grandfatherly figure as one son succeeded him in the White House while another became Florida governor.
Back in 1980, he was one of a dozen or so hopefuls who scoured the nation seeking votes during the 1980 GOP presidential primary season.
It was a time before eternal cable news, the Internet, and smartphones when everyone, it seems, takes photos of political figures and posts them on the web, along with silly or snarky comments they find amusing.
It was a time when national candidates would invade a state and vie with one another to appear at local party fundraisers and chicken dinners. It also gave local reporters a chance to sit down with national candidates, chat about politics, and not just get fed another version of the campaign talking points of the day.
That was what George Herbert Walker Bush was doing in Crawfordsville, Indiana on a warm April evening. If memory serves me well, it was a rally to support the local GOP congressman, John T. Myers, a smiling former banker who could glad-hand with the best of them.
He introduced Bush, and the crowd responded politely. It was evident they were pleased to have a national political figure as their guest for the evening, but it was clear he was playing second fiddle to Myers and the front-runner, Ronald Reagan. After the dinner (I suppose the usual, greasy chicken and canned green beans), I walked up to Bush, introduced myself, and we started chatting.
He said he was tired and wanted to sit down and invited me to join him for a beer. We grabbed a pair of beers, (Budweiser I think) walked to a back corner of the room and sat on a couple of folding chairs, probably borrowed from a local funeral home, and drank out of the bottle.
I asked him why did he think he could beat Ronald Reagan, who had spent lots of time courting Indiana voters. Bush explained that the election could come down to voter recognition and that was a factor of television advertising. If he could win a primary or two and raise enough money, he would flood the airways with TV ads and win the election.
My brain started to glaze over as he recited the facts and conclusion of this study or that. I changed the subject.
“I married a woman from the coast of Maine. You spend time there, don’t you,” I asked. Suddenly, his demeanor changed. “I just love Maine,” he said launching into a 10-minute long monologue of his love for the sea air, the rocky coast, cool summer nights and his fondness for the people. He talked of spending most summers at Walker’s Point in Kennebunkport and how much he loved that experience - and missed fresh lobsters.
I asked him about his speedboat, and he just seemed to light up. He said she was one of the early Cigarette boats and how he loved to race around in her. He liked her because she was very, very fast. Then he said he had been fortunate to have been born into a family with such close ties to Maine.
After about 20 minutes, Bush’s staffers grabbed him, he said it was good to chat and was shuttled out of the room. I smiled, thanked him, and gathered the empty bottles and took them back to the bar. Congressman Myers then asked if he could hitch a ride back to Indianapolis as he had to catch the late plane back to Washington, D.C.
As we drove the interstate back towards Indianapolis, Myers said he really liked Bush, but sadly, predicted he would lose the Indiana Republican primary. He was right. Bush lost the Indiana primary after he gathered just 92,955 votes to Reagan’s 419,556. Bush dropped out of the race soon after that.
Myers said he liked Bush because he was a good decent man who kept his word and was loyal to his friends.
"He is a good guy. A really good guy,” he said.
And he was.