© 2024 Ideastream Public Media

1375 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44115
(216) 916-6100 | (877) 399-3307

WKSU is a public media service licensed to Kent State University and operated by Ideastream Public Media.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How George H.W. Bush Rose To The Presidency


We'll be spending the next hour looking at all those lessons and the legacy of President George H.W. Bush, starting with Jerry Seib. He is the executive Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal, and he covered the entirety of President Bush's one term as president.

Jerry, welcome.

JERRY SEIB: Happy to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, President Bush was an historical anomaly, I mean, in the sense that he was a sitting vice president following the administration of Ronald Reagan, who was a polarizing figure - you know, always sort of a controversial figure. So he really wasn't expected to win, was he?

SEIB: Well, he was an anomaly. And there was a lot of joking on the campaign, including by the candidate, George H.W. Bush, that it was very rare for a two-term president's vice president to be able to succeed him. And, in the end, what he did really was put together enough moderate Republicans and convinced people in the conservative camp that he was the follow-on president, as he called himself, to Ronald Reagan. And that was enough to give him victory. But it was not a guaranteed or a sure thing by any stretch of the imagination.

MARTIN: But he was extremely well-prepared for the job, wasn't he?

SEIB: He was. You know, I tend to think that there was no other 20th century president who arrived as well-prepared as he was. I mean, he'd been in business. He'd been in Congress. He'd been the ambassador to the United Nations. He'd been envoy to China. He had run the CIA. He had been through a presidential campaign of his own in 1980, when he ran against Ronald Reagan. So he had covered literally every base that you would want covered if you were going to be a president. So the resume was sterling.

The question was, you know, was he the kind of personality that people wanted in 1988 to follow Ronald Reagan? I think, in retrospect, he probably benefited from running against somebody who turned out to not be the most charismatic Democrat who could have been nominated that year, Michael Dukakis. And, in the end, it was enough to win. And when he took over, I think he moved fairly swiftly and smoothly into the presidency itself, which isn't always the case, as we've seen with new presidents.

MARTIN: One of the things that people note about him and are noting about him is his niceness. He is...

SEIB: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Known as just an extremely nice, thoughtful person. And I don't mean that in a soft way, but a person who just had a sort of a thoroughgoing decency about him.

So there's one aspect of his campaign that I do want to ask you about, which is the infamous Willie Horton ad, which only ran once, but which is something that is something that is discussed. It was seen as racially motivated - Willie Horton being a convicted felon who was released on a furlough program that was run under the - his Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis. And Willie Horton went on to commit other crimes.

And his campaign manager, Lee Atwater, was very aggressive about sort of pushing this storyline. A lot of people were sort of surprised by the president's willingness to use this kind of racial attack - if I can, you know, call it that. Given everything else about him, is it - can you just talk about that?

SEIB: Well, look, I think there was always in George H.W. Bush a kind of a conflict about wanting to be the kind of the public servant that he imagined himself to be - and that, in fact, he was - and then engaging in the dark arts of politics which are necessary to win an election. You know, Ronald Reagan had some of the same struggles. And I guess everybody involved essentially came to attribute the Willie Horton ad to Lee Atwater, not George H.W. Bush. And I always had the feeling he felt guilty or at least sheepish about it in retrospect and kind of wished he had gone to the end without it.

It does strike me as odd because if you look at the Willie Horton ad, and you compare that to what goes on in politics today and the nastiness that we see, it doesn't seem quite so bad in retrospect as it seemed at the time. But that's mostly because I think standards have slipped even further in the years since.

MARTIN: And, finally, do you have any personal stories that you would like to share?

SEIB: The one that always sticks out in my mind was summers in Kennebunkport. You know, he would spend most of August in Kennebunkport at his family compound. Our family was young at the time. I had small children. And what he would do was invite everybody in the press corps out to Kennebunkport for a whole day, you know, feed everybody, and then he would take the kids out on his cigarette boat and give them rides around the harbor.

And this was the president of the United States driving 4-, 5-, 6-year-old kids around for hours on end. And it was just - you know, he loved the place, and he loved the boat, and he loved the scene. But he also loved the kids, and he was a - as you said at the outset, he was a nice person.

MARTIN: Is there a - well, it's impossible to know, but, clearly, we're never going to have another president who served in the way that he did. But is there anybody else in politics today that reminds you of him?

SEIB: I search in vain, to be honest with you. I think he was the personification of the greatest generation and I think maybe the last of a breed. Or, at least, it feels that way sometimes.

MARTIN: That's Jerry Seib. He's the executive Washington editor of The Wall Street Journal, and he covered the administration of President George H.W. Bush, and he's remembering him today.

Jerry Seib, thank you so much for talking to us.

SEIB: Thank you. My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.