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The Underestimated

eye on the news

The Underestimated

George H.W. Bush, R.I.P. December 1, 2018
Politics and law
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George H. W. Bush was always being underestimated. Though he was successful at almost everything he did—Yale student, baseball team captain, fighter pilot, oil executive, politician, and father—people always seemed to think that he was missing something. Peter Flanigan, the Nixon aide who dangled in front of Bush a senior job in the Nixon White House, seemed to typify this uncharitable and inaccurate view when he told him, “Well, you know, George, you’d have to work hard if you took this job.” Bush, ever gracious, held his tongue at the insult, prompting his impressed wife Barbara to marvel, “How George kept his temper, I’ll never know.” Bush went on to serve in a multitude of high-level positions in the Nixon and Ford administrations, including head of the Republican National Committee, UN ambassador, liaison to China, and CIA director. This array of positions served as a launching pad to the vice presidency and then the presidency. Flanigan tried and failed to become ambassador to Spain. Fooled by his quiet resolve, those who underestimated Bush—from Flanigan to Bob Dole to Michael Dukakis to Saddam Hussein—found themselves astounded when Bush bested them. They shouldn’t have been. Beneath his gracious, even goofy, WASP exterior was a real warrior.

One of my favorite Bush stories is the time that he took on CBS’s Dan Rather—another underestimator, then at the top of his game as anchor of the most important news show on the most important network (boy, how things have changed.) In January 1988, Bush appeared on a five-minute segment with Rather, who had planned to ambush the vice president regarding how much he knew about the Iran-Contra affair. Bush had denied direct involvement in the scheme to sell arms to Iran in exchange for the release of U.S. hostages and use of the proceeds to pay for aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, whom Congress had forbidden the Reagan administration from helping. Bush’s media tormentors loved the possibilities: either Bush was involved, which would mean he had lied, or he was not involved, which would mean that he was out of the loop as vice president.

Bush, however, had no intention of falling into this trap. With the help of GOP media guru Roger Ailes—still years away from Fox News fame—Bush came up with a plan to trap Rather instead.  Ailes, knowing how CBS was notorious for cutting and replaying excerpts of interviews that painted “bad guys”—Republicans and business executives—in a bad light, insisted on Bush’s behalf that CBS conduct the entire interview live. CBS wasn’t happy, but a live interview was the price for getting Bush into Rather’s interrogation chambers, so the network went along. The concession was important. A live interview prevented CBS from doing its standard chop job, and it had other advantages as well, as Rather would soon find out. The anchor still felt that he had the upper hand, though, and he participated in three one-hour, intensive-preparation sessions in advance of the interview. According to Time, Rather was “coached as if he were a candidate preparing for a debate or a pugilist preparing for a fight, rather than a journalist going into an interview.”

From the start of the interview, Rather pressed Bush on Iran-Contra. He was so intent on tripping up Bush that even Time acknowledged that Rather “crossed the line between objectivity and emotional involvement.” But what Rather did not know was that Bush had done some serious prep as well. Bush, with his coach Ailes in the room with him, hit Rather with a question of his own: “How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York? Would you like that?” Rather, who had indeed walked off the set to protest a tennis match cutting into his program time, was caught off guard. CBS, having agreed to the live interview, could not avoid showing the whole exchange, including the part embarrassing to Rather. Bush loved it, later saying to the still-open microphone: “The bastard didn’t lay a glove on me.”

The entire exchange was part of a concerted—and successful—effort by the Bush team to shed the “wimp” label that Newsweek had hung on Bush. Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater explained the thinking: “If somebody hits him, Bush is going to try to hit back harder.” The Rather duel was helpful to Bush in several ways. In addition to showing him as a strong leader, it helped him with his right flank—always a weakness with Bush. Conservatives loved that Bush was hitting back against the liberal Rather. And it made Bush more comfortable with the media, as he later claimed to “feel much more relaxed with the press now than I ever have.”

With his humor, his grace, and his ease with people, George H. W. Bush embodied the phrase, “Never let them see you sweat.” But the lack of visible perspiration didn’t mean that Bush wasn’t sweating—or hadn’t worked extraordinarily hard. We shall not see his likes again.

Photo by Logan Mock-Bunting/Getty Images

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