My George HW Bush reality check as a young journo

December 5, 2018

I was a cockly journo at 19. (Try to imagine. Haha.) As a sophomore at U of Illinois, I'd landed the politics beat at The Daily Illini, which usually went to an upperclassmen (or grad student). Illinois was a swing state in 1980, and 26 electoral votes, fourth highest, so all the big politicians came through. 

 

That season I covered President Jimmy Carter (my first time getting Secret Service clearance), Nancy Reagan, major indie candidate John B. Anderson (twice), and our governor and senator. I interviewed most of them.

 

About a week before the election, before he was first elected vice president, George Bush did a campaign stop at UofI, at the big basketball arena, Assembly Hall. They offered me a one on one interview for ten minutes. I was on cloud nine.

 

The day before, they called and said the schedule had tightened, but would I do the interview on the ride to the airport, which would actually be longer. I said, sure.

 

I thought he would be putty in my hands. I had gotten really good at this, with what I thought were big league politicians, like gov and senator from one of the biggest states. (Our gov was Adlai Stevenson III, so he'd been around it all his life.)

 

What made it easy was that Bush had ridiculed Reagan in the primaries for "voodoo economics." Reagan claimed he was going to drastically cut taxes, raise spending and lower the deficit all at the same time. Complete BS, of course. Bush had to defend it once he took the VP slot, but it was indefensible--and absurd.

 

So we got in the car. Driver in the front, me in the back, with George on one side of me, and his Secret Service agent on the other. I had one of those old-fashioned tape recorders shaped sort of like a small cupcake box, with buttons along one edge, the end one red for Record.

 

We started. He ran circles around me. Every move I made, he was three to four ahead. I believe he thought I was adorable.

 

That whole voodoo economics thing--he said Oh, he had never really looked at the numbers closely in the spring, and felt a little silly about that now. We would grow our way out of it, and he had lots of charts to prove it--Oh, what a shame he didn't have them with him to show me. They would get them later.

 

I kept trying to pin him down, but it was futile. I did not realize all the intersections would be blocked, so we were racing to that airport, and I felt the clock ticking away as he filibustered. He knew it too. All he had to do was delay till we hit the tarmac.

 

I guess I was interrupting some of his repetitions with "What about . . ." questions, when the Secret Service agent to my left shouts, "Why don't you let him answer the damn question?!"

 

I was stunned. My body was half-turned to face George, and I'd mostly forgotten the agent was there. I whipped my head to face him and now he was shouting, "Turn that thing off! Turn that thing off!" and thrusting his forefinger at the keys, which I was quickly whipping away from him, smacking into George, and I was totally like, WTF!

 

George totally went good cop. "No, I like the guy! I like the guy!" He said something about let him go ahead, he's got spunk or something, but I can't recall the wording, just the, "No, I like the guy!"

 

Then he had all the power. (As opposed the the 98 percent of it before.)

 

He kept promising to get the chart once we got to the airport, but of course he was whisked off there and it was long forgotten. They did get it to me later, but it was just a stupid bar graph with imaginary numbers of the tax windfall that was going to come from this huge expansion to save the deficit. (Of course none of that happened, and they exploded the deficit, exactly as George, and everyone else, had predicted in the spring.)

 

I hope I don't sound bitter about it, because that was not my take on it at all. That was my best day of class in the five years (in two tries) that it took to get my undergrad.

 

I had covered nearly every level of politics that year, from city council up to the senate, and of course there was a steady rise in talent at each rung. It wasn't precise: some bozos had exceeded their brain levels, and some brilliant up-and-comers were still working their way up. But you could pretty well predict the range of talent you'd find in an adversary at any given level. I had made allowances for that, and expected Bush to be significantly smarter and craftier than the senator and governor.

 

He was in a whole different league. He had nearly beaten Reagan in the primaries, and would eventually be the 41st person ever elected to run the country. He was in that league.

 

That's the day I realized that there are only a handful of people each generation of that political talent, and it's an exponential leap up from all the rest.

 

I started that day believing I was skillful enough, educated enough and practiced enough to wrestle with anyone alive in an interview or any other political arena. Not even close.

 

That's the day I re-calibrated what I needed to do and learn, really for the last time. I got what it was going to take to tussle with the best in the world, and it never really changed.

 

(I also thought I learned that candidates at that level have Secret Service agents to help rescue them from irritating questions when needed. I actually figured that had used that shtick before. But every journo I've ever told the story gives me bug eyes. I don't know what was up with that guy--or if he thought he could get away with it with a kid. (I was also a very late bloomer and looked about 14.) Apparently, he was an anomaly--and probably could have gotten benched for that. But what did I know?)

 

Also, my story on him was kind of weak. I was still processing, and overwhelmed. Plus, I had to combine the news story of the visit, and the interview. (Whoever was night editor--or otherwise in charge that night was an idiot! This was one of the biggest deals we'd get in my 3.5 years there. No fault of mine--just handed to me, but still. They couldn't find room for two pieces? I remember feeling really greedy and the night editor sneering at me for asking for too much, and I backed down.) But . . . I did come through with a weak story. Haha.

 

Not really the point, though. The point is . . .

 

Thanks, George. He ran for president and VP twice each, and I voted against him all four times, but I always respected him. And I've always been grateful, too. Thinking of you this week.

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