I was a footnote to an historic moment in President George H.W. Bush’s life, which ended on Friday. It was a moment that says a lot about him and what we’ve lost along the way.
In 1976, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan closely contested the Republican presidential nomination with President Gerald R. Ford. As they headed to the party convention in Kansas City, Mo., Ford was narrowly ahead.
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Reagan attempted a daring gambit. To try to wrest Pennsylvania’s delegates from Ford, Reagan offered to put Pennsylvania Sen. Richard Schweiker on the ticket with him.
Schweiker hoped his close friend Drew Lewis, who was Ford’s point person in the commonwealth, would switch sides and deliver Pennsylvania’s delegates to Reagan. Lewis was a prominent Montgomery County businessman and the 1974 Republican gubernatorial nominee.
In Pennsylvania, Republican candidates for delegate run separately from presidential candidates. The presidential contest is for show, a so-called beauty contest.
The key to Pennsylvania was to try to line up and elect three candidates for delegate in each congressional district pledged to support Ford, which is what Lewis had done. Lewis said no to Schweiker, assuring that the Pennsylvania delegates would stick with Ford, locking up his nomination at the convention.
After Ford lost to former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter in November 1976, Bush got an early start on the next presidential race.
Bush had a great resumé, at a time when qualification for high elective office mattered.
Ambassador Bush, as he was then called, had been a member of Congress, chair of the Republican National Committee, the U.S. representative to the United Nations, envoy to China, and head of the CIA.
Bush’s first trip to Pennsylvania as an unannounced candidate was in the summer of 1978. He had few friends in Pennsylvania and no political organization.
He didn’t even have someone to drive him around. I was qualified for that task, so I was asked and agreed. My reward was to be invited to dinner with Bush and a few others in Chadds Ford, where he was spending the night.
The next morning I arrived early to pick up Ambassador Bush. My job was to take him to meet Lewis at the Valley Forge Hilton.
This was an important meeting. Lewis had been the key to the last presidential nomination. He was the person to see in Pennsylvania and this could be the pivotal meeting.
As we made our way north on Route 202 in my beat-up Chevy, I thought I would give Bush my analysis, both positive and negative, of Lewis. I spoke, he listened.
What’s especially memorable is that George Bush said nothing in response.
Through the veil of decades, I understand it now. I was 20, he was 54. He didn’t know me. I was his driver.
It was presumptuous of me to offer my views, especially not having been asked. Bush was too polite to be critical. But he also was not going to provide phony thanks or validation.
Doubtless he also thought that anything he might say to me about what I had said to him might be repeated and attributed. That’s potentially gossip, so no good, either.
Better to say nothing, he knew. Be modest, honest, and diplomatic. Bush was solid and decent, a role model, a scion of the old school.
These qualities came through in his campaign against Reagan in Pennsylvania.
Bush won the popular vote beauty contest over Reagan in April 1980, one of the last occasions when a pro-choice Republican beat a pro-life Republican for anything in Pennsylvania.
The meeting between Bush and Lewis, however, was unsuccessful. Lewis supported Reagan, lined up the Pennsylvania delegates, and was key to Reagan’s election to the presidency.
But one good thing happened. George H.W. Bush taught a young man about discretion and judgment.