A heavy snow had fallen the day I went to cover George Bush.
Back in 1979, he was just “George Bush” — not George H.W. the way he would become known years later after his son had also served in the White House.
I was 21 or 22 and just starting out as a journalist in Madison, Wisconsin. I had graduated there and was employed as a stringer at $5 an hour — a princely sum in those days — for the distinguished-sounding United Press International. My boss was the Lou Grant-like Gene Hintz, and he had asked a few hours before that I cover the fledgling presidential candidate.
The first thing to know here is that if Hintz wanted me to cover Bush, it meant that the journalistic establishment wasn’t giving the man from Texas much of a shot at the GOP nomination the next year.
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The next thing you should know is that I was awfully wet behind the ears. I had heard of Bush, sure, but almost surely didn’t know that he had already been a congressman from Texas or had served as chairman of the Republican National Committee. I may have known that he had headed the CIA a couple of years previously, but his work as envoy to China?
I also remember arriving a few minutes late via the bus on that snowy day to Bush’s news conference, and it was an uphill climb from there. I sat dazed as a pack of what seemed to be tremendously well-informed reporters peppered Bush with questions about China, tensions with Iran (the hostage crisis was still months off), the economy and the tremendous inflation underway under President Carter.
I was hanging by my fingernails as I scrambled to grab a few quotes and understand whatever news Bush was making. I remember thinking that I was failing miserably.
Between the fast-paced news conference and Bush’s speech that evening was a cafeteria-style dinner. I got in line and was spooning up steaming vegetables and chicken when a man behind me said hello. He knew my name, and I was astonished to look up and see that it was Bush himself.
He asked how UPI was doing, what my parents did, about Wisconsin politics — and soon I was jabbering away as we slid our trays down the line. A few minutes later it was over. He went off to dine with important people, and I found a seat in the back.
Then it hit me. Bush had been working me, schmoozing a cub reporter to maybe get a better story and build rapport in case we crossed paths down the road. Surely a press aide had told him who I was. But Bush, who in that pre-Facebook era had a legendary Christmas card list of thousands across the nation, found me worthy enough to focus on that winter evening. His currency was relationships, and he was good at it.
That speaks volumes about why Bush went on to become the 41st president. And it screamed loudly to me that journalism was important enough work that someone like George Bush would pay attention to a kid just coming on the scene.