At a White House news conference in January 1990, then-President George H.W. Bush called on me for a question and then repeated my name three times in his answer, drawing titters from the press corps. That’s because he kept calling me “Ann,” an error of no importance. He was the president. He had more momentous things to remember than my name.
Still, the next day a note handwritten on White House stationery arrived. “Dear Susan,” it began. “I know you’re not Ann. Ann Margaret lives on the West Coast. But I forgot. Will you forgive me? Say ‘yes.’ Sincerely, George Bush.”
That note, which I framed and now hangs above my desk at home, was vintage George Bush in both its thoughtfulness and its corny humor. Many others have notes of their own that he dashed off after occasions difficult or celebratory.
The death of the 41st president on Friday marks the nation’s loss of a World War II Navy pilot who lacked any hint of bravado, the son of a U.S. senator who himself became the patriarch of one of America’s premier political dynasties, and one of politics’ most courteous people.
George Herbert Walker Bush wasn’t the most triumphant president of recent decades. Unlike the president he served as vice president (Ronald Reagan) and the one who succeeded him in the White House (Bill Clinton), he failed in his bid for a second term. His effort to address the budget deficit, agreeing to tax hikes as well as spending cuts, was seen as an object lesson for Republicans on what not to do, one being followed to this day in endless fiscal-cliff debates.
But as a man steeped in diplomacy and national security affairs — he had served as United Nations ambassador, U.S. liaison to China and CIA director before becoming vice president — he was uniquely able to navigate uncharted waters when the Soviet Union disintegrated on his watch in the White House.
And he showed steel in his determination to repel Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, patiently building an international coalition against Iraq. When the agreed-upon mission had been fulfilled and Iraqi forces withdrew from Kuwait, he ended the war and rebuffed entreaties to march to Baghdad and end Saddam’s rule.
That task was finally undertaken by his son, President George W. Bush, in a war that didn’t reflect the lessons of restraint the elder Bush had set.
Not that he would countenance any suggestion that his son had erred. The only time Bush became openly angry with me was during a 2007 interview at Texas A & M in College Station, pegged to the opening of an exhibit at his presidential library about his decision-making in the Gulf War. I asked him about the different paths he and his son had chosen in Iraq.
“I don’t reminisce with … my friends like you about what my son does or doesn’t do,” he replied. “I think we forget even today the extraordinary brutality of Saddam Hussein.” He called criticism of his son “grossly unfair” and added emotionally, his eyes welling with tears, “That’s a father caring about his son and his president.”
The last interview I had with him was, well, kinder and gentler than that. Almost precisely a year ago, in November 2017, I sat down with him at his office in Houston. This time, we were talking about his beloved wife, Barbara Bush, for a biography I was writing of her, The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty. She would die five months later, in April.
The 2016 campaign was the tenth presidential race I’ve covered, first for Newsday and then for USA TODAY. George Bush was the first presidential hopeful I ever interviewed, in January 1980 on a commercial flight from Chicago to Philadelphia, sitting three across in coach. For more than an hour, he talked about the lessons of service he had learned from his father, former Connecticut senator Prescott Bush, and from his indomitable mother, Dorothy Walker Bush.
He lost the Republican presidential nomination that year but ended up as Reagan’s running mate, then managed to win his own term in the White House in 1988. The campaign against Democrat Michael Dukakis pioneered a more brutal form of attack politics. Four years later, he seemed a bit at sea during his re-election race.
There is one other framed memento from Bush on my wall. When he was vice president, I interviewed him in his office in the Old Executive Office Building, across from the White House. A Newsday photographer was shooting pictures of him standing on the balcony. “Let’s get one for the scrapbook,” Bush declared, pulling me into the frame. “With a lot of happy memories!!” he inscribed on the photo.
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