A Rambling Remembrance: George HW Bush

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    Joseph Harrison
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    If a few words might be accorded a senior citizen who remembers both George and Barbara Bush (hopefully now reunited) from their pre-White House days, these musings might stand in utterly stark contrast to today’s political theater. Never was I a close friend, but I was always made to feel like one; they were both just such normal, down-to-earth people at all times.

    Because I also worked for a Freshman GOP Congressman after the 1966 elections, and came to know George Bush’s top staffer, Jimmy Allison, and I also lived in NW Washington, I sorted of landed in the vast circle of Bush friends, frequently playing tennis with them at a club near our homes. In turn, that led to some nifty invitations (as the extra male) to dinner parties, and, courtesy of Barbara, a blind date with Justice Potter Stewart’s daughter (The Justice opened the front door and greeted this very stunned young man himself!) My friendship with George and Barbara endured through their career travels, and when, much later, I had married and was moving to San Francisco, I told George of my plans, he asked me to help him as he prepared to enter the 1980 Presidential primaries. Well, I was no political neophyte and knew his chances were slim to none against my newly adopted home state’s favorite GOP son, RR, but I said, “You bet I will, George!” I felt I had nothing to lose. This was an honorable, capable man, and Reagan was at that point quite controversial nationally.

    Long story short: I was a government affairs guy for Potlatch Corp. in SF. About 6 months into that stint, I got a phone call from someone (I think it was Tom Lias) in the new Bush for President national organization, asking if I would take charge of the Bush campaign in California. What? Well, I decided to help them fundraise informally for a while first, and that was easy. A lot of moderate Republicans, especially in northern California, didn’t favor RR, and saw Bush as a good alternative; they were happy to contribute. Bush and Jim Baker came to SF to meet donors, which helped me meet the rich and famous of SF. I remember driving the future President and future Secretary of State (little did I know) through SF’s notorious Gay District to show them the drama; they marveled at how open all this flashy display was!!! And it showed how really human both of them could be. We talked about it, a bit tenuously, but not with animosity.

    A few months later, when the Bush campaign began to get real, I arranged a very friendly departure from Potlatch and formed my own consulting firm with just one client: Bush for President 1980. This was mostly a fundraising operation, which I’d never done before. But it wasn’t difficult to find major donors for the Bush effort, and both George and Bar came out frequently for the events we organized. All the while, I got from each of them multiple hand written notes of gratitude (remember, this was in the olden days, pre-cellphone etc.), as did all donors and all the people helping us. Both of them were unbelievable at their note-writing prowess, and this can not be overstated!! I amassed more than 3 dozen very personal notes from them during this period. And part of the legacy of George Bush is that in those days of land-line phones, he ALWAYS called his campaign workers to thank them for their efforts. I always provided him with a list of names/numbers of my key volunteers wherever we held events (even in California, where Bush primary voters were sparse but Bush $$ were abundant, he made several 1980 trips) and he called each one of them, reporting later to me with a note on whether or not he had made contact.

    After George formally announced, I got another call from HQ, saying that as long as I was “out there in the West” how about if I just add Nevada? Well, why not? I knew no one there, but not to worry! My wife and I treated ourselves to a short ski trip/fund raising effort around Reno, and I’ll never forget the phone call I got from campaign director Jim Baker just as I got off the slopes: “Hi, Joe, how’s the skiing?” “Uhhh, just fine, Jim….” I never did figure out how he knew about that part of my trip. Didn’t raise much dough, but we got a small organization started; later, we got one going in Vegas, too. All part of a great adventure. We lost both primaries, but came out just fine, and I, a young newbie to California business and politics (although it is my native state) made lots of solid new friends, and got some Bush tickets to the 1980 GOP Convention.

    Biggest thrill: Sitting absolutely alone in the Bush suite in Detroit, no one else in the place; newly nominated RR comes on stage and makes his startling surprise announcement: Bush is my pick for Veep! Immediately the Bush suite becomes jam-packed! A lot of the people I had worked with came to join what became one grand party!!!!

    After the election, I was in DC on business, and made arrangements for a private tour of the Vice President’s Residence on Mass. Avenue. Taking a taxi, it happened that I arrived 5 minutes early, and I didn’t think that it would be prudent to stand outside the Residence (doing nothing) for even that brief period. So, I rang the bell, and was ushered in. Lo and behold, immediately there appeared Barbara Bush in full motherly mode, scolding me: “Joe Harrison, You should never arrive early for an appointment at the Vice President’s Residence!” I dared not ask how serious she was, but she simmered down and most graciously spent at least 40 minutes just showing me around the place and being, as always, the perfect hostess putting such a personal touch on everything.

    These were just magnificent, marvelous human beings without an ornery bone in either of their bodies. So much has been written about both recently, no point duplicating that. Just some personal musings from a guy who knew them when he was young and easily influenced. I thank God it was by people like George and Barbara Bush. Not sure that’s possible in today’s atmosphere — are there any leaders with the personal standards of George and Barbara Bush?

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