The Patrician President and the Reporterette: a Screwball Story
Posted December 2, 2018 3:27 p.m. EST
Nobody understood our relationship — least of all us.
It was, admittedly, odd.
“I like you,” the first President George Bush wrote me once, after he was out of office. “Please don’t tell anyone.”
In decades of correspondence, he tried to figure out why we stayed in touch, beginning one note “Darn you Maureen Dowd” and mischievously observing in another, “Sometimes I found it better around my family to go ‘Maureen who?'”
At times, typing on what he called “my little IBM,” he signed off “Con afecto, GB,” or if I was writing critically about his sons, “Con Afecto, still, just barely though! gb.” Or “Love” scratched out and replaced with the handwritten rebuke, “not quite there yet.”
I come from a line of Irish maids who worked for the first families of America, the Mellons and the Gores, wealthy, aristocratic families like the Bushes.
George Herbert Walker Bush, known by his childhood nickname of Poppy, was cared for by maids and chauffeured to kindergarten at Greenwich Country Day School. His idea of cursing like a sailor entailed unleashing a string of epithets like “Golly!” “Darn!” and “Oh, shoot!”
His father was a Wall Street banker turned Connecticut senator who was straight out of central casting: craggy, 6-foot-4, wearing gray worsted suits even in warm weather. My brothers, Michael and Martin, teenage pages at the Capitol in the ‘50s, were in awe of him. Michael was in the Senate mail room one day when the young man sorting letters held up one addressed to the Connecticut senator and mused: “You just know a guy with a name like Prescott Bush is not driving a bus.”
If the Clintons are the careless Tom and Daisy Buchanan and Barack Obama is a Camus-like figure of existential estrangement and Donald Trump is a flimflam man out of “Huckleberry Finn,” H.W. was Bertie Wooster, an airy WASP propelled to the top by the old boys’ network.
In another life, I probably would have been serving Bush his vodka martini, made to perfection with a splash of dry vermouth, two olives and a cocktail onion.
But I came along just as the old world of Ivy League white men running everything was breaking up. My mom had applied for a job as a reporter at The Washington Post in 1926 and had been told by a gruff city editor that it was too rough a trade for a young lady.
But by 1988, I could be The New York Times White House reporter.
And that was a shock to the system for H.W. He was all noblesse oblige and I was all class rage. He was clearly expecting someone with a name like Horatio Farnsworth III, a Harvard man who would bat around the finer points of the North Atlantic alliance over highballs on Air Force One. And he got a newfangled, irreverent “reporterette,” as Rush Limbaugh called us in those days, who was just as focused on character and personality as politics and policy.
At dinner one night, Bush’s pollster, Bob Teeter, had a couple of martinis and got frank with me: “We just don’t see you as The New York Times White House reporter. We see you more at a newspaper like the New York Daily News or the Chicago Tribune.”
Dumbfounded, I stammered, “You mean because I’m a woman with an ethnic, working-class background?'’
Yes, Teeter replied.
And thus began the screwball story, spanning decades, mystifying everyone, of the patrician president and the impertinent reporter.
I wrote a lot about how the preppy with the striped watchband transformed his blue-blooded Yale background to seem more red-blooded Texas, putting Tabasco sauce on his tuna fish sandwiches, wearing cowboy boots emblazoned with “GB,” listening to the Oak Ridge Boys and Reba McEntire, and pretending that pork rinds were his favorite snack rather than popcorn.
He protested that his mesquite side was genuine. “Can I name drop right here?” he wrote me once. “I am mad about Reba and she likes me, too — so there!”
Fortunately, H.W. was too gracious to hold my background and writing style against me for long. He adapted and treated me with utter fairness and kindness, even when I dubbed him “goofy” for bouncing around like Tom Hanks in “Big,” an irrepressible boy in a dignified man’s body. “Ants on a hot pan,” the Chinese christened him, for his frenetic personality.
What other commander in chief wore a bunny tie on Easter and a pumpkin tie on Halloween? Who else would sit in the White House reading women’s magazines with his wife and then look up to ask, “Bar, what’s a bikini wax?” Who else would go to the magic shop near the White House and fill his office with items like a red rope that turned white, a calculator that squirted water and cash on a string so you could yank it back when someone tried to pick it up? He also had a crystal ball with a disembodied voice that gave Delphic answers to questions about tax increases: “The images are cloudy. Have someone else ask.”
Who else would send me a Polaroid of himself wearing a T-shirt that said “Broccoli Lover”? Or a picture of himself and Barbara parodying that famous attenuated Al and Tipper Gore convention kiss?
Who else would jump out of a plane on his 90th birthday, years after he began using a wheelchair? Waiting for her husband on the landing pad of their church in Kennebunkport, Barbara dryly noted that if the parachute didn’t open, at least they wouldn’t have to go far for the funeral.
Poppy wasn’t perfect. I recoiled when he beat Michael Dukakis with the race-baiting Willie Horton campaign designed by Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes. And again when he sent his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, to Beijing for a secret midnight Champagne toast with the leaders who perpetrated the Tiananmen Square massacre. And again when he didn’t do nearly enough to combat the AIDS epidemic. And again when his White House directed the defense of his Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, that tried to discredit Anita Hill. Unlike President Donald Trump, who does his own wet work, the Bushes took the more refined route of outsourcing their ends-justify-the-means moves.
But, as politicians go, 41 had many good qualities. Most of the time, he tried to do the right and decent thing, as he saw it, to act for the good of the country and the world. He earned his sobriquet from his biographer Jon Meacham: “The Last Gentleman.”
Covering H.W.'s White House was wildly different from covering Donald Trump’s. A Trump day bursts with a fusillade of huge news stories, often starting at dawn with a crazy tweet and usually involving the amorality, criminality and vulgarity of the president and his circle. I could go for months without getting a juicy story out of 41’s White House. It was often hard to even break into the paper — unless we discovered that the president showered with his dog, Millie, or that Millie was suffering from lead poisoning from licking the White House paint.
In the absence of stories about impeachment, porn stars and white-collar criminal transgressions, I was left writing about Bush-speak, 41’s tangled syntax. At a Knoxville high school, when he was asked about ideas to improve schools, he replied: “Well, I’m going to kick that one right into the end zone of the Secretary of Education.” Sometimes he forgot and read his stage directions, like: “Message: I care.” As Lance Morrow wrote in Time magazine, the president treated words as “perverse, buzzing little demons that need to be brushed away periodically like flies.” This did not help H.W. in debates with Bill Clinton, which is why he was caught impatiently checking his watch.
He once tried to dismiss a reporter who asked about his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, chiding: “You’re burning up time. The meter is running through the sand on you, and I am now filibustering.” He went past dialoguing with other world leaders to “trialoguing.” He often quoted some advice from his mother, using it for all occasions: “So tomorrow there’s going to be another tidal wave, so keep your snorkel above the water level.” He shunned personal pronouns because his beloved mother, Dorothy, always warned him not to gloat or focus on “the big I.” Asked what the Malta summit with Mikhail Gorbachev would mean for the world, Bush replied: “Grandkids. All of that. Very important.” In his State of the Union message, he asked: “Ambitious aims? Of course. Easy to do? Far from it.” Once on his beloved cigarette boat, the Fidelity, he told me, “Can’t act. Just have to be me.”
Dana Carvey mocked the president by standing in front of the Berlin Wall on “Saturday Night Live” and intoning: “Before Bush, wall. With Bush, no wall.” Bush, who loved to laugh and who traded barbershop jokes with his Secretary of State James Baker and his image wizard Sig Rogich, ended up putting a tape of Carvey mimicking him in his presidential library. (His fondness for dirty jokes grew antiquated, colliding in the end with the #MeToo wave, for which he apologized.)
After 43 became president, 41 wrote to Time’s Hugh Sidey with a self-deprecating comparison to John Adams, the only other president whose son also became president: “A prolific reader, he loved the classics, prided himself on his ability to speak Latin, and had a library of extraordinary proportions. I couldn’t wait to stop studying Latin. Big difference there between me and John.”
I wrote about Bush’s grueling schedule, not of governing but of sporting: shooting, casting, jogging, putting, pitching, lobbing, boating, diving and body surfing. I dug up the dirt on his floating backhand, unsteady putting stroke and a basketball shot that his son Marvin called “an ugly air ball.” Many a summer morning at 6 a.m., I could be found on the Kennebunkport golf course, sitting cross-legged and watching Bush play “aerobic golf” or “golf polo.” He complained in one of his “blue notes” from the Oval to his press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, that I was sitting in a “hinayanistic” Buddha pose on the first tee, “off meditating in Sri Lanka.” It was giving him the yips. He worried I was trying to figure out “what makes this crazy guy tick.”
Once, to pay him back for all the break-of-day golf games, I thought it would be funny to wear a “Jesse Jackson for President ‘88” cap and a “Bob Dole for President ‘88” T-shirt on the course. As H.W. came hurtling down in his golf cart toward the ninth hole, I was waiting for him to see my get-up and laugh. But he didn’t look my way. His golf partner, his oldest son, then known as “Junior” and the Roman candle in the family, did look, though, and leveled a fierce glare at me.
“No worries,” I comforted myself. “Jeb’s the comer. Junior’s the black sheep.”
H.W. used sports as a way to do personal diplomacy, playing horseshoes with heads of state at Camp David or driving them maniacally on his motorboat at Kennebunkport. (Francois Mitterrand begged off, saying he’d get mal de mer.)
I was in the press contingent when 41 took Hosni Mubarak to his first baseball game to see the Baltimore Orioles. The crowd cheered as Ted Williams, who was in the stands, was introduced and then reacted in flummoxed silence when the announcer boomed “the president of Egypt — Mubarak.”
One of the only things that 41 ever boasted about was when he began hilariously claiming, after he got out of office, that he had coined the phrase “You da man” in the ‘60s. “He maintains he was inspired to shout it to the Houston Astros’ Rusty Staub as he rounded third base following a home run, and it slowly caught on from there,” Doro Bush wrote in her book on her dad.
I interviewed Bush about popular culture and he accused me of doing a “psychoanalytical” piece and trying to put him “on the couch.” I found out that Greer Garson was his favorite actress, that he had a crush on Doris Day as a teenage Navy pilot in World War II, that he loved glee club music, that he was a bust at the fox trot, and that he once dozed off while watching the Ronald Reagan movie “Santa Fe Trail.”
I didn’t spare the journalistic rod. When I took my mother, who was on crutches, to a White House Christmas party, Bush kissed her sweetly. On the way home, she said, “I knew he had a cold, but he was so handsome, I just went for it.” Then she glowered at me, muttering, “I don’t want you to write anything mean about that man ever again.”
Somewhere along the way, H.W. and I grew to appreciate each other.
“We have a love-hate relationship,” he told me when I ran into him in 2001 at a book party in Georgetown. “I talk to my shrink about it.” He knew that I knew he was kidding; he avoided introspection at all costs, often ending debates in the White House by saying “I’m president and you’re not.”
Like the current occupant of the White House, 41 was obsessed with The New York Times. (Both men’s fathers read the Times.) But while he tweaked the liberal press — a 1992 bumper sticker said “Annoy the media, re-elect Bush” — Poppy understood we are not the Enemy of the People. His critiques were more along the lines of this one in a note he sent me: “Booh!, editorial page.”
When I asked the ex-president if he would like to meet with our editorial board, he replied, “Only after 3 root canal jobs. Thanks anyway.”
He reminisced in one note that Arthur Sulzberger Jr. had covered his campaign a bit in 1980: “We liked him, but then he got to be an editor then top gun — publisher. A lib, yes, but not a mean one.”
H.W. wrote that he was not as anti-press as his sister, Nancy Ellis, who had once excoriated the Taylors, who used to own The Boston Globe. “I am not like my beloved sister, who has re-cancelled her Boston Globe subscription four different times,” he said, “and who took on one of the sacred Taylor family in a letter-to-the-ed as a ‘Droopy Drawers.'”
He would complain when I used the “d word” (dynasty) and when he thought I was making the family sound elitist, telling me to lay off the “legacy crud” and “the Gatsby stuff,” fretting that it could hurt Jeb. He told me to ignore his stationery with the drawing of the posh Kennebunkport compound. He sometimes signed off sardonically, “Sincerely, My Excellency, GHWB, Eastern Elitist.”
Mostly, he agonized about how strange it was that we stayed in touch when I was so hard on W. about the invasion of Iraq. (Even though H.W. and I both believed that ousting Saddam would cause more trouble than containing him.)
“Where do you and I stand,” he pondered. “It is not hate (underlined). How can I feel a warm spot in my heart for someone who day in and day out brutalizes my son? I don’t know but I do. End of Confession — Con Afecto, GB #41.”
Another time, he wrote: “I don’t like it that you don’t like my oldest son; but it’s a bit of a stand off cuz he doesn’t like you either. But then he doesn’t know you as well as I do. Time may heal.”
Jean Becker, 41’s lovely chief of staff, joked that the former president and I needed “couples counseling.”
Sometimes, H.W. talked about his “madness Richter scale” or declared himself “double dip angry” with me after a tough column on W.
“You see, I like this exchange with you, but, as confessed before, I get angry with you!” he wrote. Another time, he teased: “Now I am off to the clinic to take a little Prozac, stretch out, and get some shrinkster to figure out this love/hate thing about you that plagues me.” At one point, he pleaded: “Do not prescribe shock therapy.”
He said he preferred to keep his advice to his eldest son private, noting: “I am even very careful around close friends having learned that the propensity to leak is stronger than the sex drive.” Once, in return for being on a panel at the Bush Library — we had to wait until Barbara was out of town because she was peeved about my W. columns — 41 gave me a copy of a book which was the closest he got to a memoir, “A World Transformed,” written with Scowcroft. The inscription said it was “better than Sominex if you ever need a tranquilizer."And he trepidatiously gave me a quirky, raffish, 11-page typed parody of my Bush parodies portraying W. as a Boy Emperor being controlled by his malevolent regents, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.
His satire was laced with “forsooths,” “lyres,” “nobles and peasants,” “courtiers,” “verilys” and other Old English touches. It was funny, bringing alive the fantasy court of Bushland with Poppy as “the old warrior king”; “Queen Bar”; “King Prescott of Greenwich, now in heaven”; “Princess Doro”; “Earl Jeb of Tallahassee”; “Lady Dowd, ‘charming princess’ of Op-ed land”; “Queen Hillary of Chappaqua”; “Sir Algore”; “Maid Monica” frolicking with “King Bill” in the Oval Office, ushering in “a new permissiveness, a new standard that confuses the old man.” And there was George of Crawford, “the new King” who took the throne after “the Battle of Chads in November.”
But an even funnier thing that happened in the course of this unique relationship came after the ascension of W. — whom 41 sometimes referred to in his notes as “my boy, Quincy.” In 2006, 43 made a rare trip to Kennebunkport one weekend for a wedding, a christening and a funeral, and I went with the press corps. I was surprised when Karl Rove called me to tell me he was involved in a cloak-and-dagger plot with Bush senior, who wanted to meet me for coffee but didn’t want his son to find out because it would irritate him.
The former CIA director who liked to sign his notes at the agency, “Head Spook,” still had some tricks up his sleeve. I loved the idea of one president with a Secret Service detail sneaking around behind the back of another president with a Secret Service detail, when they were both staying in the same family compound in the small Maine town.
Talk about Skull and Bones skulduggery. We didn’t pull it off, but I liked the derring-do of it, recalling the days when Bush used to try to lose his security detail when he was careering around in his speedboat in Maine. After he was out of office, I sent H.W. and Barbara books and small Christmas mementos. Once, I told my assistant, Ashley Parker — now a Washington Post White House reporter — to send him a glasses case embroidered with a lobster. She got distracted and sent him some cheap drugstore hand warmers that you put inside gloves.
Naturally, since we’re talking about the most polite man who ever lived, I soon got a thank-you note for the 50-cent present: “I shall use the handwarmers as Pres. Obama comes in and we Bushes leave town,” he said.
When my mom died at 97 in 2005, he sent me a kind email that made me cry.
“It hurts to lose a parent,” he wrote. “It hurts an awful lot. When my own Mom died I went up to Greenwich to check on her. She was close to death and her breathing was so labored that I literally prayed to God, as I knelt right there by her bed, that she would go on to heaven. She was prepared to do just that.
“I hope your own Mom had a peaceful passing; and that she felt joyous about going on to heaven. Heck with politics. Heck with the NYT and all my hang ups about" it.
I flew down to Houston to have lunch with H.W. in 2011.
“Did you come because you think I’m going to die?” the then 87-year-old in a wheelchair asked me as we dined at his favorite pizza dive.
No, I replied. I told him I was enlisting to go with him on his 90th birthday parachute jump.
He spoke fondly of Bill Clinton and respectfully of President Barack Obama. Then I asked him about Donald Trump, who was leading the birther charge against Obama. Neither of us could have imagined then that Trump would dispatch H.W.'s long-nurtured dreams of his son Jeb becoming president with two words: “low energy.”
At the mere mention of Trump’s name, 41 made a face. “He’s an ass,” he snapped.
When Trump began plowing his way through Republican rivals, H.W. was known to throw his shoe at the television set.
The narcissistic, amoral, vulgar reality-TV president and the modest, principled, classy, old-world president could not be more different.
With Poppy, there was decency and sweetness.
“Put it this way,” he wrote me once. “I reserve the right to whine, to not read, to use profanity, but if you ever get really hurt or if you ever get really down and need a shoulder to cry on or just need a friend — give me a call. I’ll be there for you. I’ll not let you down.
“Now, go on out and knock my knickers off. When you do, I might just cancel my subscription.”
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