In the summer of 1992, George H.W. Bush was looking at a difficult re-election campaign. He and Ronald Reagan had accomplished a rare feat: capping off a two-term presidency by winning the White House for a candidate of the same party. Bush was riding high from his resounding victory against Saddam Hussein in Operation Desert Shield, but the economy was pulling out of a recession, and the Democrats had an array of impressive challengers. The President couldn’t afford to take any votes for granted.
And so, in August of that year, the Bush Administration, as part of a multifaceted outreach effort, invited a dozen or so journalists from Jewish community newspapers, magazines and newswires for a White House press briefing. I was one of them.
In the interest of full disclosure, I wasn’t a typical member of the pack. Only a few years out of college, I had a few bylines under my belt, and had covered the New York City mayoral race of 1989, but I was by no means a national political correspondent. I was there because Alan Tigay, the very kind editor of Hadassah Magazine, the publication where I worked at the time, wanted to give a budding journalist a big break.
It felt surreal to step out of the train station and say to the cab driver, “The White House, please.” Arriving after a sleepless night, I was shown to the Roosevelt Room. I had envisioned the event as I’d seen press briefings on TV — sitting in the audience, facing the president at the lectern. Instead, we all sat around a table, and as luck would have it I ended up directly across from the 41st President — about as close as I’d sit with family members at the dinner table.
I listened for about 45 minutes as senior journalists grilled the President about his policies on American spy Jonathan Pollard, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Soviet Jewish emigration and more. Toward the end I was able to get one question in, asking if he’d changed his view on a major Israel policy issue. I got a one-word answer: “No.”
What I remember most about the meeting is how the President and his staff went out of their way to make everyone feel comfortable. He was in no rush and always polite to the questioners, even as they pressed him for answers. It was a far cry from the adversarial exchanges President Trump has with mainstream media. Yes, it was good politics, but I also got a strong sense that this was just the way George Herbert Walker Bush spoke to people. On his way out, he stopped to speak to each of us individually.
When it was my turn, I was at a loss to make small talk with the leader of the Free World. He asked where I’m from, and I told him (Brooklyn, at the time.) That was about it. Later on, it occurred to me that I could’ve told him how my mother suffered from Parkinson’s disease, and suggested he reconsider his opposition to stem cell research that could help people like her. It was my one and only chance to lobby a President. But that would have crossed a line. I was there as a reporter.
In the course of the long journalism career that followed, I met many other political figures, but never another sitting U.S. President. In the 1992 campaign, Bush went in strong but quickly lost ground to the young, dynamic duo of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, whose expert political team managed to paint Bush as tired and out-of-touch, an image he bolstered with visuals such as looking at his watch during a debate and appearing stunned by a supermarket price scanner.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this took place at the dawn of the cable news age, when politicians were still grappling with how to burnish their image in a 24/7 news cycle.
When he talked about a “kinder, gentler nation” guided by "1,000 points of light," it wasn’t hyperbole, but maybe George H.W. Bush just didn’t have the fire in his belly to face the onset of the 21st century and the dawn of the technology age.
During the many testimonials in the week of mourning ahead, George H.W. Bush will be remembered as a World War II combat vet and former CIA director who helped usher in the defeat of the Soviet Union and took quick decisive action with his line in the sand against Saddam. But many who had the chance to meet him, even briefly, will likely just remember a gentleman who treated people with kindness and made them feel at home.
Adam Dickter is director at Dukas Linden Public Relations.