By: Joe Strupp
I had been a reporter at my first job, The Daily Journal in Elizabeth, N.J., for less than three months in September 1988 when the city editor assigned me to cover a local campaign appearance by the son of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush. George Bush Jr., as he was described in the press release promoting his visit, would be glad to meet and greet any reporters.
The elder Bush and Michael Dukakis had just gone toe-to-toe in their first presidential debate the night before and Bush’s son was making the local rounds to talk up his father, who many agreed had lost out to the Massachusetts governor the prior evening.
As I recall, the editor wasn’t all that interested in what the younger, lesser-known Bush was going to be saying, more in what local Republicans thought of the debate. Still, it was a chance to meet a link to the possible future president. Given the fact that I’d been covering Brooklyn College student government doings only a few months earlier, this was mildly exciting.
Daily Journal photographer Katharine Friedrich and I drove the short distance to nearby Clark, N.J., and climbed to the second-floor office that housed Bush’s New Jersey campaign brain trust. The usual gathering of local GOPers were there awaiting the arrival of Bush’s eldest son.
At the time, Junior had escaped his checkered career in the gas and oil business for two years and had yet to co-own the Texas Rangers, which came about in 1989. Running for Texas governor would not happen for another six years. He was described by the campaign as Bush’s businessman son who was devoting his time to getting his father elected.
After a while, it appeared that we would be the only media there. Larger papers and the limited New Jersey broadcast outlets apparently found little value in speaking with this unknown son of the Veep. Still, I was ready to meet my most famous interviewee to date, and organized questions about the debate, Vice President Bush’s chances in the final month, and what Junior thought of his father’s stance on various issues.
Finally, the man who would (eventually) be president arrived. Although lacking the smiling, outgoing approach that would come later, and sporting a curly haircut and boyish look, young George did some glad-handing as he worked the room.
After the usual friendly banter with supporters and a short pep talk, Bush walked us to a separate office, closed the door, and proceeded to give about 30 minutes of his time. Sitting behind an empty desk, he leaned back in a chair with a “New Jersey & BUSH, Perfect Together” sign on the wall behind him.
A slight Texas twang — not as pronounced as his current accent — wrapped his comments, while he gave more thought to answers than he sometimes seems to do nowadays. After declaring his father the debate winner (what a surprise), Bush Jr. responded to various questions this way:
On his father’s showing against Dukakis: “I thought he did very well. As people get to know him, they see him as a regular guy.”
On keeping third-party candidates out of the debates: “These are the two main candidates. They represent the mainstream. The two-party system tends to prevent splinter groups from dominating the forum. I think both parties spread a wide enough net to include all opinions.” (Four years later his father would lose to Bill Clinton in the 1992 election that included independent candidate H. Ross Perot, who most agree took some votes away from the elder Bush.)
On the choice of Dan Quayle for a running mate: “I think he’s going to be a real plus for the ticket.”
Deeply meaningful analysis it wasn’t. But one of the most interesting — and ironic — statements was Bush Jr.’s criticism of Dukakis for “ducking the issues” and “avoiding direct answers. … I thought he was hesitant,” said the younger Bush.
Still, the would-be president did not rush out of the interview and offered no angry reactions to the questioning. At the end, he kindly shook hands, patted me on the back, and exited the offices.
Three years ago, when I got a moment to speak again with Bush Jr. (now President George W. Bush) following a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington, I told him about our previous encounter. He offered, “Oh, really?” as he shook my hand again and worked the crowd. “How’d I do?” he asked.
“Well, look where you are now,” I responded.