WASHINGTON (Reuters) - White House reporters saw in George H.W. Bush a U.S. president who was a perpetual motion machine and a frequent flyer to far-flung places who took all kinds of questions, loved sports and said some of the darndest things.
“Don’t cry for me, Argentina” was one of his most bewildering lines from a long list of head-scratching comments.
At least it was baffling in 1992, when his re-election campaign was struggling in New Hampshire. But he was just citing a song from the Broadway hit “Evita” to convey a message that people should not feel sorry for him.
His handlers may have wanted him to stay on message, but Bush was liable to answer questions on any range of subjects when around reporters.
About noontime on many Fridays, a voice over the White House press room loudspeaker would announce abruptly: “The president will appear in the briefing room in five minutes.”
Reporters would scramble to their seats and Bush would enter without ceremony and stay for about half an hour. If your hand was up, Bush generally would get around to calling on you.
His accessibility was such that it sometimes led to awkward situations, like the time a pool of reporters accompanied him on one of his rounds at Cape Arundel Golf Club near his beloved Walker’s Point redoubt in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Blackberrys had yet to be invented, and not everybody had a cellphone, so every reporter in the pool carried a White House-issued beeper that emitted an annoying “BRRRIP! BRRRIP! BRRRIP!” with every presidential announcement.
Naturally all the beepers started going off one by one as Bush took questions on the ninth green.
“I believe ...” Bush said.
“BRRRIP!” sounded a beeper.
“And then...” he said.
“BRRRIP!” sounded another.
He finally got flustered by the interruptions and stalked away to his golf cart.
He fished, played tennis and jogged, but golf was his favourite sport, and speed was part of his game. He was known for what we called “aerobic golf,” finishing 18 holes in less than two hours.
He had a horseshoe pit dug for photographers near the clubhouse. Sometimes he would throw horseshoes with what he called “the photo dogs.” At summer parties, Bush grilled hamburgers, an unopened can of Budweiser in his pocket.
My first time in Kennebunkport, in the winter of 1991, I joined a pool of reporters walking on the beach with the president. At sunrise, a frigid wind was blowing in off the Atlantic Ocean as we prepared for our walk on Goose Rocks Beach.
Image-conscious presidents today would not dream of donning a goofy hat, but Bush did. He wore an aviator’s hat complete with furry, floppy dog ears.
Aided by a walking stick that added to his momentum, Bush broke out ahead of the press pool with a long-legged stride and we had to run to keep up. This went on for an agonizing hour. He took quite a few questions, but when I listened to the tape later, all I could hear were gasps of “Mr. President” and the sound of our huffing and puffing.
His oldest son, former President George W. Bush, told Reuters in an interview that his father’s top lesson had been to live life to the fullest. “Here’s a guy who’s parachute jumping at age 90,” the son said.
RETREAT - AND RETURN
His interaction with the news media eventually diminished. One incident in particular annoyed him and his advisers - when he marvelled at what a pool reporter thought was a typical supermarket scanner in Orlando. The anecdote was proof, some wrote, that Bush was out of touch with everyday Americans.
On further probing, reporters learned it was not a typical scanner but rather a machine that could electronically read signatures on a check, a novel technology at the time. But the damage had been done.
A biography about Bush published in 2014 by his son George W. recounted how his father seriously considered not seeking a second term in 1992. A darker side of Bush emerged in the late stages of the campaign as it became clear he was going to lose. He dismissed Bill Clinton’s running mate, Al Gore, as “Ozone Man” for his fixation on the environment and had harsh words for the Democratic team that would go on to unseat him.
“My dog Millie knows more about foreign policy than those two bozos,” he said.
Bush retreated to his Houston home and stewed for a while. But he recovered and eventually became close friends with Clinton.
Writing by Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Howard Goller and Peter Cooney