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Patrick Durkin Lessons learned from George H.W. Bush

December 5, 2018

The passing of George H.W. Bush feels like a closing of the book on the greatest generation, with President Bush being its last and highest watermark. It also feels like a time to celebrate one of the most extraordinary American lives ever lived — an emblem of integrity and decency and a reminder that character will always matter most.

I joined the first Bush presidential campaign in 1980 at age 22 and was promptly dispensed to the frozen campaign fields of New Hampshire for the first-in-the-nation primary, viewed then and today as a must-win state. I quickly learned that a Bush campaign was really a Bush family campaign comprised of Mr. and Mrs. Bush, their children (George, Jeb, Neil, Marvin and Doro), uncles and aunts, cousins, and an almost endless army of friends who were like extended family. And they were all tied together by this magnificent man and the cause of service he championed.

The campaign was full of intensity and hard work — and was a huge dose of fun. But we faced a fundamental challenge: almost nobody knew George Bush (he had less than 1 percent name recognition when I joined the campaign) and he was running against a former successful actor and governor of California, Ronald Reagan. Despite the odds, George Bush believed in his mission, and we learned lesson number one, that with conviction and purpose no challenge was to big.

The lessons one learns on the campaign trail are indelible. For example, Mr. Bush campaigned at factories not to just get a photo-op with the workers and hit the evening news, but to actually meet people and ask for their vote. I was always amazed how this man who had worked with the most powerful people in the world was genuinely interested in the stories of the people he met. He would then turn to a campaign staffer and make sure we secured each person’s contact information so he could send a follow-up handwritten note — a habit for which he became famous and earned votes.

I am the recipient of one of Bush’s famous notes. In the heat of the national election he amazingly took the time to type out a personal recommendation which I am sure accounted for much of my success in future job and graduate school applications. Another lesson learned, take time to help people one at a time, even when you are really busy.

I also learned that this kind and approachable man was fiercely competitive and could take a setback in stride. In February 1980, I was an advance man for what was scheduled to be a one-on-one Bush-Reagan debate in Nashua, New Hampshire. It was almost certainly going to decide who would win the state primary and the Republican nomination — voting was just three days later — and reap the spoils of “as goes New Hampshire so goes the nation.” But Reagan outfoxed us by inviting the five other candidates to be on stage for the debate, which led to his famous “I am paying for this microphone” moment. Mr. Reagan was judged to have won the contest. When I saw Mr. Bush off stage, he was furious and fit to be tied. I could see my neck in a noose. But instead of being chewed out, he slapped me on the shoulder and said, “we will beat him anyway.” We didn’t — Reagan won the primary — but Mr. Bush didn’t blame his staff and moved on to fight in the next primaries. Another lesson learned — grace under pressure.

With Mr. Bush’s victory in 1988, he was in the cross-currents of a volatile period, with the Soviet Union coming apart and stiff financial and economic challenges emerging at home and abroad. It was as if history had hand-picked Mr. Bush to lead us through this time. His leadership was critical to a peaceful end to Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and to the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union. He also took the tough decision to do the unimaginable at home and try to balance the budget by raising taxes. His move undoubtedly contributed to his defeat in 1992. The nation was reminded and a lesson learned again, that George Bush would always do what was best for the country and his decision helped lay the foundation for a decade-long period of prosperity.

Our nation celebrates this wonderful man and we are thankful for all George Bush did for our country and world. I am particularly thankful for knowing the Bush family and their friends and being introduced to politics and public service. We have all learned important lessons from George Bush most importantly about character — and some small ones that guide me to this day: 90 percent of success is showing up; it’s rude to be late; stop for ice cream on the campaign trail; and (most importantly) always take calls from your family — particularly if the call is from your wife!

Patrick Durkin worked on President Bush’s campaigns in 1980, 1988 and 1992 in various field, communications and financial roles and worked at the Treasury during the Reagan and Bush Administration. He now works for Atlas Merchant Capital and is a lifelong resident of Greenwich. Contact him at patrickdurkin1@gmail.com.

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