The first time I met George H.W. Bush was when he was running for President of the United States in 1980 against Ronald Reagan. As executive director of the City Club of Chicago, I had invited him to speak at one of our luncheon forums.
Having heard him speak on a number of previous occasions, I had forewarned some of our members that Bush wasn’t the most dynamic public speaker, but an “interesting guy.” To my amazement, he gave a speech that received a standing ovation from a mostly Democrat audience.
Afterward, I paid my compliment to Bush by saying I had never heard him give a better speech. To which he responded in a tone of faux amazement, “Neither have I.”
In an almost unknown story (and would be totally unknown if I were not here to tell about it) Bush played a critical role in saving the historic Chicago Theatre. I led that fight in the press, in the negotiations and in the courts for almost two years before the venerable old movie house was spared from the wrecking ball.
In order for the developers to put together a financial package to purchase and renovate the theater from the Plitt Theater Corporation, they needed what was known as a UDAG – an Urban Develop Action Grant – from Uncle Sam. At the time, those grants were being held up by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Samuel Pierce in a feud with Ways and Means Chairman and Chicago Congressman Dan Rostenkowski.
I traveled to Washington to meet with Rosty, as he was called, to see what could be done. After a brief conversation, Rosty asked his secretary to call Bush’s office and tell them he needed to talk to the then- Vice President. Within minutes, the secretary announced that Bush was on the line.
Rosty explained the situation and closed with this friendly threat. “George, make sure you tell the President that if I do not get the UDAG for the Chicago Theatre, he will have one pissed off Ways and Means chairman when he wants to discuss tax reform.” There was an outburst of good-natured laughter and the call ended with a “Thanks buddy.” By the time I returned to Chicago, the UDAG had been approved.
In recognition of his role in saving the Theatre, I invited Bush to be the main speaker at the City Club’s annual dinner – and, in this case, the 80th anniversary of the Club’s founding. It was a grand event with a head table of 80 of Chicago’s leading citizens, more than a dozen of Illinois’ top political leaders and comedian Bob Newhart for a bit of comic relief. The photo heading this requiem is from that occasion.
On the grander scale, Bush was a remarkable President in remarkable times. He was remarkably humble and self-effacing for a man who had held so many powerful positions – congressman, liaison to China (essentially the ambassador before we had official ties), Director of the CIA, Ambassador to the United Nations, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Vice President of the United States and President. It was only because of an election defeat in 1970 that he did not also serve in the Senate.
Despite his privileged upbringing – the son of United States Senator Prescott Bush – “41” had a common touch and a gracious sensitivity to the common person. He would spend all important holidays at the White House so that his travels would not require hundreds, perhaps thousands, of workers – from Secret Service to local police and reporters to be called away from their families to support the needs of a traveling President.
Considering he only had one term, Bush was one of the most accomplished presidents in American history. Having worked side-by-side with President Reagan to strategically bring down the Soviet Union, it was on Bush’s watch that what Reagan dubbed the “evil empire” collapsed — and the Cold War ended in a bloodless victory. More than a dozen nations held in hegemony by the Soviets were again free and independent. The most iconic image of that amazing accomplishment was the tearing down of the Berlin Wall that divided Germany for almost 50 years.
When Iraq madman Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Bush quickly assembled a coalition of nations and deployed 400,000 U.S. troop to the Middle East to drive the Iraqi forces out of their neighboring country. It was a war that was almost concluded in hours. Following the swift victory, Bush had a favorable rating of 91 percent — the highest of any President.
He was denied a second terms by a conflation of a number of events – none of which on their own would have blocked his re-election. He had broken his “read my lips” campaign promise to not raise taxes. The economy had gone into a decline – and some blamed the tax increase. Independent candidate Ross Perot was cutting into the conservative base. In Bill Clinton, he was up against one of the most effective campaigners presidential elections had ever experienced – and conversely, Bush was floundering on the platform, even to the point that some suggested he was not in the best of health.
He and the also 94-year-old Jimmy Carter are the last presidents of what is often called America’s “greatest generation” – at least since the Founders. Whether that is a bit overstated, it can be said that Bush ended an era of civic pride and national unity that has not been seen to this day. His successor, Bill Clinton, kicked off the current era or division and acrimony from the grassroots to the Oval Office.
In that regard alone, George Herbert Walker Bush will be sorely missed.
So, there ‘tis.