When I was a supporter and campaign worker for Ronald Reagan in early 1980, my first impressions of George H. W. Bush were not friendly. They were respectful, because I knew of the long list of accomplishments he had, including Member of Congress, U.S. Ambassador to China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
But George Bush stood in the way of Reagan’s ascent to the presidency, and thus he was not a friend, but a foe.
Yet when I met him for the first time and got to know him, he quickly won my support and loyalty. The first time we met face-to-face and talked was at a reception in Springfield during the Illinois State Fair. I was coordinating press activities for the Reagan-Bush campaign in Illinois and several other Midwest states.
It was always exciting and somewhat intimidating to meet and talk with national political leaders.
I was stunned when he said he knew that I had been a former newspaper reporter, and that I had worked for Congressman Phil Crane, and that I been active in the unsuccessful Reagan campaign in 1976.
The fact that a candidate for vice president of the United States knew what I was doing, and had some background information on me was so unusual for a “first meeting” that I was immediately impressed and developed an immediate respect for and loyalty to him.
And of course Reagan and Bush won that election, and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend a lot more time with Vice President George Bush and his family, doing advance work on many of his international trips, and watching him in action as both vice president and later as president of the United States.
I was thrilled when I was asked to manage the Bush campaign for president in Illinois – even more so when we put Illinois in the “Bush” column in 1988 – the last time a Republican candidate carried Illinois in the presidential election.
Most of my time in the early years of Bush’s presidency was spent as director of the U.S. Small Business Administration in the Midwest, an appointment that allowed me to serve as an advance coordinator for many presidential trips.
I got to know the Bushes well, and there are many fond memories: my first visit to Kennebunkport; having my daughter Terri (who was working for the Republican National Committee in Washington) being tasked as a periodic “baby sitter” for the Bush granddaughters; posing for a photo with President and Mrs. Bush in front of the Pyramids in Egypt.
When I was appointed director of the Presidential Advance Office, I was able to get even closer to the Bush family and their friends. Among my favorite photos are one of my wife, Laurel, and I with President and Mrs. Bush in front of the White House Christmas tree, and a second one, taken the next day, of Laurel and me with Terri and President Bush in the Oval Office.
While those two days were among the most joyful, the day in Houston in November, 1992, when we had to endure a night of watching vote tallies being reported on television screens and knowing that it didn’t look good, was the worst. It was a quiet flight on Air Force One back to Washington the next day.
When I was leaving the White House to return to Arlington Heights, I sent a note to President Bush expressing my appreciation for all he had done, and especially for giving me the opportunity to work closely with him and get to know him and his family.
The day after I returned home, the mail man delivered a formal looking envelope with the single return address on it: George Bush.
In it was a hand-written note to me from outgoing-President Bush thanking me for my note, and for my service to him, his family and his administration.
It was pure class. It was from the George Bush I had gotten to know and admire so much.
It has been painful during recent years to see the deterioration in this once strong and healthy man. The pain he was feeling was felt by many of us who watched him endure the death of his beloved Barbara.
There are many of us who have lost not only a president, but a true and genuine friend and an American hero. I think of that photo of the young Navy pilot being pulled out of the water after being shot down.
That was George Herbert Walker Bush. Our nation was fortunate to have him.