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Paul Janensch Being unfair to George H.W. Bush

December 4, 2018

I remember two instances when the news media were unfair to George H.W. Bush, who died Friday, Nov. 30, at age 94.

They can be labeled “wimp” and “checkout scanner.”

I also remember my encounter with Bush when he was vice president.

But first, “wimp.”

In October 1987, when Vice President Bush announced his candidacy for president, Newsweek ran a cover story titled “Fighting the ‘Wimp Factor.’” It wondered whether Bush had the fortitude to lead the Free World.

It’s true that Bush, who grew up in affluent Greenwich, came across as a well-mannered, self-deprecating fellow. But a wimp he was not.

In World War II, he joined the U.S. Navy as a pilot at age 18 and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was shot down by the Japanese and rescued at sea.

Evan Thomas, who was then with the magazine and edited the story, recently said he was wrong to put “wimp” in the headline.

Next, “checkout scanner.”

In his 1992 campaign for re-election against Democrat Bill Clinton and independent candidate Ross Perot, President Bush attended a grocers’ convention and was shown a checkout scanner.

The New York Times and other news outlets said he was “amazed” to see how it worked. It made him seem like some rich guy who never went out to buy milk and eggs.

Actually, as fact-checking Snopes.com later reported, it was a scanner with new technology that could weigh purchases and read mangled and torn bar codes.

Being “amazed” was an appropriate reaction.

Now, my encounter with Bush.

When Vice President Bush spoke to a convention of newspaper editors at a Washington hotel, I was in the audience. At the time, I was editor of The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky.

It was early in Ronald Reagan’s first term as president.

Reagan, of course, had defeated Bush for the Republican presidential nomination. He chose Bush as his running mate, and the Reagan-Bush ticket won the 1980 and 1984 elections.

Reagan was a conservative. Bush was a moderate. When they were rivals for the presidential nomination, the two often disagreed on basic issues. For example, Bush dismissed Reagan’s call for the lowering of income and capital-gains tax rates as “voodoo economics.”

A question-and-answer session followed Bush’s speech. I stepped to a floor microphone. When Bush pointed to me, I asked: “Mr. Vice President, if you had won the nomination and been elected president, what would you be doing different from Ronald Reagan?”

Bush looked at me for several seconds. Then he flashed that lopsided grin, leaned toward his microphone and said to the audience: “I’m not going to answer that. Next question?”

After Bush was elected president in 1988, Dana Carvey frequently portrayed him as a lovable fumbler on “Saturday Night Live.”

One of his oft-repeated lines was, “Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.”

Perhaps Bush thought a response to my question wouldn’t be prudent.

Paul Janensch, of Bridgeport, was a newspaper editor and taught journalism at Quinnipiac University. Email: paul.janensch@quinnipiac.edu.

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