We judge character by the best intentions and most noble acts.
On that count alone, I have a vivid memory from nearly 40 years ago that came to me as I learned of the passing of former first lady Barbara Bush.
In 1980, Barbara’s husband, George H.W. Bush, had been tapped by presidential nominee Ronald Reagan as his running mate at the Republican National Convention. Bush had, until very late in the game, been running directly against Reagan, corralling enough delegate votes to garner significant attention at the Detroit confab.
Bush, however, decided to drop out of active contention for the RNC nomination when Reagan’s delegate hard count indicated he would be nominated very early in the balloting. This was the gentlemanly thing to do, though hard-core partisans of Reagan’s had never really forgiven Bush for some of the rough and tumble campaign rhetoric.
Barbara, too, had spoken quite candidly for years about some of the issues and candidates, often without conferring with her husband or his handlers. Though far more charmingly candid, she was definitely less gentle in style than her husband. She would continue this practice for the rest of her storied life.
An October stop in Minneapolis
As the campaign against incumbent President Jimmy Carter and Minnesota’s own Walter Mondale, the vice president, bounced back-and-forth nationally, Reagan’s presence was concentrated in his must-win, closely contested states. That did not include Minnesota, viewed as a sure-fire win for Carter-Mondale.
In mid-October, Reagan-Bush decided that a touch down appearance and morning news conference for Bush in Minnesota would be in order, however.
During dinner hour the evening George and Barbara were to arrive, I got a panicked call from a Minnesota Republican leader who shall remain nameless saying something like, “We’re having a problem getting a welcoming committee of prominent party leaders to the airport to meet George and Barbara Bush.”
My phone mate went on to explain that the congressional candidates were campaigning and out of town and many of the hardest party workers for Reagan were busy electioneering and disinterested in greeting the Bushes.
As a former party chair, I understood this but was quite surprised at what followed.
“We know you know the Bushes and they know you, so could you come and welcome them? They arrive in 60 minutes!”
‘Can I come along?’
I checked with the family and started for the door to make the run to the often-used military arrival section of MSP airport, something I had done for a number of blue chip visitors in my previous years as a party activist.
“Can I come along, Dad?” said my nearly 4-year-old son earnestly.
His mother and I conferred and thought it would be OK as Judson Matthew had no commitments the next morning and could sleep in. (I also offered to take Judd’s 11-year-old sister along but she had other things on her plate.)
Judd grabbed his Minnesota Vikings jacket, one of his favorites, and we headed out, traveling eastward on Highway 62; I probably did exceed the speed limit a bit getting to the airport.
I could see the plane approach for its landing as we departed the hastily parked car and headed through security to join the welcoming committee. They checked to see if I was on the very short list and if I was who I said I was.
Holding my son, I was the final person to greet the future VP and President and Barbara.
15 minutes to chat
As luck would have it, the Bush’s transportation had not yet arrived so there we were, having about 15 minutes to chat about all things political.
Barbara was immediately taken with the cutest looking 3-year-old in the world. He was a shy kid and burrowed his head into my jacket. I explained to her that my son was quite timid and that’s all it took.
She smiled and looked directly at the boy, positioning herself so their eyes met as she asked him some questions. (Meanwhile, I was trying to sound politically savvy and talk politics and the election three weeks out with George.)
After a couple minutes, Barbara reached out for Judd to come to her and — he did just that. He was responsive to the questions asked and delighted in her gentle yet fun manner.
A few minutes later, the vans rolled in for the staff and media and a limo came for the guests of honor. Barbara gave Judd a kiss on his cheek, suggesting that she’d like to take him along, but she did return my pride and joy to me.
I got a handwritten letter from her about a week later in which she inquired about “that handsome lad of yours.”
A classy, noble lady whose life touched so many as it did ours on that cold fall evening. She lived a long and eventful life, and America is far better for it.
Chuck Slocum, president of The Williston Group, a management consulting firm, can be reached at Chuck@WillistonGroup.Com.
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