George H.W. Bush: Always respectful to journalist

December 5, 2018

In September 1982, then-Vice President George Bush held a news conference in Charleston, W.Va., while there to campaign for a Republican congressional candidate.

I covered the event as a reporter for United Press International.

It was a perilous time. The previous month, President Ronald Reagan had ordered about 800 Marines to Lebanon as part of a multi-nation peace-keeping force.

I asked Bush about the risk of Marine casualties.

“There is some concern. We believe the risks are outweighed by the benefits for overall peace,” Bush said. He refused to say whether the administration had ruled out the possibility of the Marines assuming combat roles.

After the vice president had ended the news conference and as he walked out of the room, I tried to follow up about the Marines. He ignored the question, calling me another Sam Donaldson. He said it with a smile. Donaldson at the time was the hard-charging chief White House correspondent for ABC News.

Eight days after the Bush news conference, the Marines suffered their first casualties in Lebanon. One was killed and three wounded in an explosion at the Beirut airport.

The worst was yet to come.

The Beirut barracks bombings in October 1983 killed 220 Marines and 21 other U.S. service personnel. Nearly 60 French paratroopers also died.

It was the deadliest day for the Marines since the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.

I first covered Bush in 1980 in Columbus, Ohio, when he was campaigning for president.

Bush appeared on Warner QUBE, an experimental two-way cable television system. During the program, viewers were asked questions and responded with one of five possible answers listed on their remote devices. The internet was still being developed at that time.

I sat in the studio audience with Barbara Bush and other family members. Bush’s campaign for president was already on the ropes, but the TV audience overwhelmingly voted that he should continue his campaign until the Republican National Convention. A few days later, he pulled out of the presidential race, leaving Reagan as the last man standing.

At the Republican National Convention in 1988 in New Orleans, Bush was the nominee to succeed Reagan. I was assigned by UPI to help cover his selection of a vice presidential running mate.

Some of the biggest heavyweights in the GOP had been mentioned as possible veep choices. They included Sens. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, Bob Dole of Kansas and John McCain of Arizona, as well as U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp of New York.

Bush arrived by riverboat at the convention. In a well-choreographed spectacle on the banks of the Mississippi River, he announced his surprise pick of Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana as his vice presidential running mate. The youthful Quayle acted more like cheerleader than statesman.

That evening, the bank of televisions in the convention’s giant newsroom exploded with replays of the searing sights and sounds of the Vietnam War and stories about Quayle’s enlistment in the National Guard to avoid serving in Vietnam.

I watched a few days later as Bush accepted his party’s nomination for president in a speech in the Superdome.

That was the speech in which he referred to a charitable nation as “a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light.”

It also was the speech in which he pledged to tell Congress, “Read my lips: no new taxes.”

Reneging on that pledge would help lead to Bush’s defeat for re-election to the presidency in 1992.

My encounters with Bush, who died Friday in Houston at age 94, were few and brief. So, I’ll leave it to others to draw the big picture of the man when it comes to his relationship with the news media.

Donaldson, the former ABC newsman, said over the weekend that Bush sometimes challenged reporters but was always respectful.

“I never heard of him calling a reporter to chew him out, never being angry at a reporter,” Donaldson told CNN. “He understood what we were about.”

Thom Cole is an investigative reporter with The New Mexican.

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