Having been privileged to serve President George H. W. Bush as a White House Staff Assistant in the Office of Public Liaison, I got to see the President, and the man up close. He had many great qualities, as were mentioned at his funeral. The quality that impressed me, then and now, was how good of a listener he was.
Two examples were in Roosevelt Room meetings I helped organize. Part of our job in Public Liaison was to coordinate meetings with the President and constituent groups.
We were meeting with Police Chiefs and Sheriffs from across the country. One of the Police Chiefs, from a large predominantly liberal city, made a comment to the effect, “We’ve got to do something about all those guns out there.” (This was 1989, some issues seem not to go away.)
The body language in the room shifted. Half the law enforcement chiefs obviously agreed with the comment. The other half obviously strongly disagreed with it. President Bush 41, as he did many times, used a personal anecdote to make his point and diffuse the tension.
He told the story of how when Washington DC passed mandatory gun registration. He went to the city clerk’s office on the first day of registration to register his handgun. He expected for there to be a long line. To his surprise, there was no one in line. As he filed the paperwork, he asked the clerk across the counter, “Have you had a lot of people here to register?”
The clerk replied, “Just a handful of other suckers from Northwest like you.” The clerk was making the point that only a few people from the low crime area of DC were registering, none from the high crime areas, the places the law was designed to impact.
The people in the room chuckled. The tension was diffused and yet he was able to make his point about opposing gun registration as a practical matter.
There was another occasion when we were meeting with folks from the Agriculture sector. One of the meeting participants mentioned a policy issue in very intellectual terms.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute. Isn’t this what that farmer in Iowa was telling me about?” he asked the staff. Some of us had worked on the campaign, some had been in Iowa. The last time the President (then still Vice President) had been in Iowa was a year and a half earlier. None of us remembered the farmer in question. The President did. It wasn’t just a policy question, it affected a person. He had listened to that farmer, and now it was impacting his decision making. He remembered that policy is about people.
There are many other stories I could share, but one thing I learned from his White House and family was reflected in the funeral today, “Keep it short and to the point.” Our briefing memos to the President were less than two pages, a three-page memo was a huge complex issue. It was terrific discipline and it forced you to focus on what is important.
We saw today what was important to President George H. W. Bush; Faith, Family and Country.
What a world this would be, if we all followed that example and focused on them too.