I covered George H.W. Bush: He was the nicest politician I ever met

I covered George H.W. Bush: He was the nicest politician I ever met
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President George H. W. Bush was the nicest politician I ever met. I say that after having covered a slew of politicians from mayors, to governors, to presidents for more than 40 years. There was something about him that made you feel you knew him even before you met him. I can use words such as “friendly,” “warm,” “sincere” and “humble,” but they are inadequate and never get to the essence of the man that he really was. 

As a reporter who covered two of his presidential campaigns and his four years in the White House, I got to know him beyond his public façade. When he was spending August at his beloved seaside home in Kennebunkport, Me. – which he called his “anchor to windward” – he invited me to join him on his crack-of-dawn morning jogs. The protocol was that I could not ask him political or policy questions because it gave me an advantage over other reporters who didn’t jog. So, we talked about the weather, the previous night’s baseball games – he was then a Mets fan – which local restaurants I visited, what I ate there and whether the food was good or not. I found out later he was passing along my restaurant reviews to friends.

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He jogged and waved to neighbors along the sandy-edged back roads near his home. Once he stopped, handed me a camera and had me take a picture of him and some neighbors. As he ran, he was followed by a flashing-lights police car and flanked on foot by jogging Secret Service agents with assault rifles strapped to their chests. Millie, the First Dog, also trotted along, sometimes straying onto neighbors’ lawns, only to be whistled back. The president’s aerobic regimen was 20 minutes – no more, no less. He was 65 at the time.

After his jog, Bush would dash over to the Cape Arundel Golf Club for a quick 18 holes which he would complete in 90 minutes. Reporters assigned to cover called it “aerobic golf.” The drill was that the press pool could view him on the first tee, see who his golfing partners were and ask questions. However, questions while anyone was teeing up and ready to swing were forbidden. One female reporter new to the beat and unaware of the protocol asked the president a question just as he swung. He winced as his left-handed shot sliced far to the left. Rather than take a mulligan or admonish the reporter, he just muttered, “Oh, Lord.”

That was about as angry an outburst as you were likely to get from him. His somewhat embarrassed reaction when someone once told him he made a tough speech was, “Yes, we broke a little china.”

But it was that same calm reserve and astute diplomatic skill, combined with a humility ingrained in him by his mother (“Never be a bragger” she ordered) that served the nation so well at a critical time. He presided over the fall of the Berlin Wall, the tricky unification of East and West Germany into NATO, and the demise of the Soviet Union. It all could have gone in a much more dangerous direction.

He was the right man in the right place at the right time.

Never a grandstander, Bush was criticized for not going to the Berlin Wall to celebrate the victory of democracy. He said at the time that going there would look like bragging, and that he didn’t want to embarrass Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev with whom he needed to retain a working relationship.

He also avoided hogging the limelight when the first victorious U.S. troops returned to Andrews Air Force Base after routing Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait. And he skipped the ticker-tape parade in New York City. A World War II hero himself, he wanted the troops to have their own moment.

At the time, Bush was asked why he didn’t continue sending the troops to Baghdad, rather than call them home. His response proved prescient. “And then what?” he asked. We all know what happened some 12 year later when son George W. ordered the invasion of Iraq.

In 1998, Bush and his national security adviser Brent Scowcroft wrote “A World Transformed,” a book that gave an inside look at the many critical foreign policy decisions made while he was in office. I went up to Kennebunkport to interview them for a story.

He and Scowcroft had just returned from a morning round of golf. Bush invited me into the kitchen as he prepared coffee and toast. It was bizarre to be standing there as the former president made toast, two slices at a time. He created a teetering stack of crispy whole wheat bread that might have tumbled over if he added one more slice. 

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His work completed, Bush put the coffee and toast on a tray and carried it into the cavernous living room filled with bookshelves, family pictures, and chintz-covered furniture. A big picture window framed Atlantic waves crashing onto rocks. Bush and Scowcroft exchanged wisecracks about who shot a better round of golf that day.

But Bush was having the most fun. He had a little tin shaker of cinnamon. And like a kid who sneaked into the cookie jar, he sprinkled a thick, reddish coat of the sugary powder on his toast, slice after slice.

“Don’t tell Bar,” he giggled. “She’ll kill me if she sees this.”

I think now of his last week in office. I had been in a downtown Washington bookstore where I saw a book on the discount table titled “Coastal Maine.”  I bought it, brought it to the White House, enclosed a farewell note and asked Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater to give it to the president.

A few days later, I got a handwritten thank-you note from him. It is dated January 19, 1993, his last full day in office. It read in part, “Dear Richard, I stand here in the Oval Office ready to leave, my ‘Coastal Maine’ under my arm… My work here is done.”

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He teaches media and politics at American University and in The Fund For American Studies program at George Mason University.