In the Reagan White House, Bush made our jobs easier — and fun

In the Reagan White House, Bush made our jobs easier — and fun
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George Herbert Walker Bush had a problem with women: He couldn’t be mean to them. As President Reagan’s director of media relations at the White House in 1984, I was part of the team preparing then-Vice President Bush for his historic debate against Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro. I was assigned to play the role of ultra-liberal, obnoxious female reporter, and I played it to the hilt. Bush had a hard time being anything but respectful — even encouraging. He said he didn’t want to be “mean.” It took a number of tries for him to hit the right tone. He needed to sound confident and knowledgeable, determined but not patronizing.

Most of the debate prep was spent on weighty issues of the day, but what I remember most was his discomfort with the discussion about abortion, particularly whether there were situations in which abortion should be legal and might be moral. The usual exemptions were mentioned — rape, incest, life of the mother — and one member of the policy team argued against supporting any exception for rape, noting that a “tiny percent of rapes result in pregnancy.” Fortunately, another team member informed Bush that the percentage was irrelevant — the issue was that every woman feared being raped, a fear that a man couldn’t possibly understand. Bush found that persuasive, and the session moved on.

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Though I did not frequently brief him or rehearse his appearances, Bush was very important to my career at the White House. One of my innovations to reach around the White House press corps was to group five local television stations in key markets together for five-minute “live-on-tape” interviews, which we conducted one after another. I cut a deal with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to use their studio and satellite time, and their reporter would get the sixth interview. For the opportunity to interview President Reagan, a station first had to interview two cabinet members and then Vice President Bush. The strategy worked because of Bush’s enthusiastic participation.

We tried to do interviews every week, and by and large, that worked with the cabinet secretaries. Once we went for several months without interviews with Bush and when we finally got on his schedule, we spent two hours in which he faced the camera, a card next to it with the name of the TV anchor, the station’s call letters and the city. After two dozen interviews, and many repetitive questions, he looked slightly shell-shocked. Rather than criticize me, however, he simply asked if we might space these out a little better in the future.

The tributes coming from around the world frequently note all the positions he held in government. But focusing on titles and jobs held doesn’t fully convey his incredibly deep knowledge on the widest range of issues and personalities. The 1984 Republican Convention was in Dallas, and I was in charge of all press outside the national networks, papers and celebrity commentators.

Early one morning, the conference director called me and said Bush had a free hour in the afternoon; would I like to fill it? We hastily organized a briefing for about 50 reporters who peppered him with questions. No prepared remarks, no screener; just a wide-open hour. I can’t imagine another elected official subjecting himself to that, but he was committed to being accessible and contributing to a civil discussion.

All the pictures of Bush with little children accurately portray the man I remember working with. One incident in particular remains clear: The winners of a prestigious award from the Supreme Court wanted to meet the president or vice president, so I arranged for them to drop by Bush’s office. One of the awardees had his two small children with him. As they entered the vice president’s office, a security officer said the kids weren’t on the list and could not be admitted. Their dad offered to withdraw, protesting that he didn’t want to cause any trouble.

I put him at the back of the line and said, “When you get into Mr. Bush’s office, ask him to wave at your kids.” When he did, Bush immediately said to bring them into the office. He got down on the floor with them. There was a model ship on one of the credenzas, which he brought down on the floor. He played with them for 10 or 15 minutes — an incredibly long time for an unscheduled visit.

One of my favorite quotes is from another president, Teddy Roosevelt, who said: “Do what you can, where you are, with what you’ve got.” George H.W. Bush exemplified that advice, and we are all better for it.  

Merrie Spaeth, a Dallas communications consultant, was President Reagan’s director of media relations. Follow her on Twitter @SpaethCom.