George H.W. Bush was the last president who was not a baby boomer. At the same time, he was the first president who the youngest baby boomers could vote for… or against. A lot has been said and written in the days since the president died, but BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs has some personal recollections of the man, that hopefully help fill in the picture finally being drawn.
In all the attention we have just given to the life and death of President George H.W. Bush, one fact about the man was understated if not totally unstated: what you saw — when you saw George H.W. Bush up close and personal — was not what you got.
I first met him when I was a correspondent for ABC News and he was Ronald Reagan’s Vice President. Note that I say I “met” him rather than “covered” him because that’s how it felt. He asked about me before I could ask about him. And while I rotated in and out of his vice presidential path, he made sure every time I came back in to make some sort of personal comment or ask some sort of personal question: “Sorry you had to wait for me out here in the cold,” or, “Do you like living overseas?”, or even, “I think last time I saw you your little boy was sick. Is he okay now?”
It was inconsistent with every other president or vice president I ever covered, but totally consistent what so many Americans with ties to this man talked about in the wake of his death. His decency, his civility, his unselfish attention to others, his kind heart to all. He was a gentleman. And he worked hard at it.
That’s not what people always saw if they didn’t get the chance to be “up close and personal.” He sometimes seemed stiff, his language sometimes sounded stilted, his behavior sometimes struck people as out of touch.
Mind you, this wasn’t the first president I covered who had that problem, and he wasn’t the last. While Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton showed the same face in public as in private, Jimmy Carter didn’t, and Gerald Ford didn’t. Probably to their detriment, since in a nation where many voters are attracted as much to a candidate’s personality as to his policies, neither won a second term. Nor did George H.W. Bush.
My best personal case-in-point about the difference between a public and a private face was Dan Quayle, who replaced George H.W. Bush as Vice President of the United States when Bush moved into the presidency. Quayle was widely portrayed — and thus widely seen — as something of a dunce. If you’re old enough, you’ll remember when the vice president was making an appearance at an elementary school in New Jersey, and a 12-year-old boy in a spelling bee spelled “Potato,” which was right. But Quayle spoke up to say he should add an “e” at the end to make it “Potatoe.”
I bought into this image of Dan Quayle as much as anybody. But during Operation Desert Shield, the run-up to the first Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm), ABC assigned me to fly with Quayle on Air Force Two to Europe and on to the Middle East, where he would consult with American allies in the forthcoming fight. When you fly with a president, you’re part of a press corps of about 300 reporters. Flying overseas with Quayle, I was part of a press corps of three. And two were from his home state of Indiana.
So shortly after takeoff from Andrews Air Force Base, being the only “national” reporter on the plane, Quayle came back to sit with me, probably planning on schmoozing for five minutes and heading back to his cabin in front. But we started talking about the war coming up, and the Middle East in general, and American politics, and European politics, and long story short, the vice president was brilliant. He knew his stuff. No dunce, our first-in-line.
Yet at our early morning refueling stop, at an air base in northern England where U.S. troops were transitioning to the Middle East, Vice President Quayle gave a quick talk … and came across as cold and stiff and inarticulate. The dunce many expected.
Likewise, George H.W. Bush. He sometimes fumbled with facts and stumbled with servility. But that was only in public. In private, he was a smart man, a studious man, a scrupulous man. And, a solicitous, sympathetic man.
There’s one other fact to which a lot of attention was not given in the aftermath of the president’s death: George H.W. Bush was our last leader from our parents’ generation.
Who followed him in the White House? One of the oldest baby boomers, born in 1946, Bill Clinton. Who followed Clinton? Another of the oldest boomers, also born in ’46, George W. Bush. Who followed the second Bush? A younger boomer named Barack Obama. But who followed Obama? The oldest boomer of them all: Donald Trump. (Personal note: I was born in ’46 myself, but later that year than all three presidents. Which means, I’m just a kid.)
The day the president’s death was announced, I heard an interview on NPR with a Wall Street Journal editor who had been the paper’s White House correspondent during the first President Bush’s term. He was asked, who today exemplifies the personal qualities and characteristics of George H.W. Bush? Without missing a beat, his answer was, “I search in vain.”
I hope we don’t have to search for much longer. At this point, whoever fills those shoes most likely will have to come from a generation behind mine.