New Hampshire saw the late President George H.W. Bush soar to political heights only to come crashing down — and everything in between — over a long and storied career in public life.
On Saturday, those who knew Bush, 94, fondly recalled this son of wealth with the everyman look and manner. He went on to become arguably the most successful one-term President in American history.
Former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu was Bush’s White House chief of staff after Sununu helped engineer Bush’s comeback first-in-the-nation primary victory over Bob Dole in 1988.
“I think in New Hampshire what really helped him the most was we love our ‘see me, touch me, feel me’ campaign. He eventually got used to it and we got to see what a genuine, wonderful human being he was,” Sununu said.
“What always amazed me was how he was able to connect with everyone from all walks of life. He came from privilege but he was just a wonderful guy to have a cup of coffee with.”
Many years later in early 2000 campaigning for his son in Milford, the future President George W. Bush, the elder and humble Bush shared a heartfelt thank you.
“I think you listen, and you judge and you decide and then you do what’s right and I’ll never forget it,” Bush said.
Gov. Chris Sununu, who was only 14 when Bush was elected President, ordered flags at half staff in New Hampshire through sunset on New Year’s Eve in Bush’s honor.
“President Bush was a true American hero and statesman who served our country with honor and integrity, time and time again. He was well known to us in New Hampshire,” the younger Sununu said.
“President Bush loved our state and many Granite Staters were fortunate to call him a dear friend.”
Back in 1979, Bush was the Swiss Army knife of the Republican Party running for President, a former CIA chief, UN ambassador, envoy to China, congressman, Republican National Committee chairman, World War II hero pilot and college baseball standout.
And nobody in the Granite State knew him, said Joel Maiola, one of the original young “Bush Whackers” who crisscrossed the state for nearly two years in that first presidential run.
“He was so humble and self-effacing and had a great sense of humor. He was just a great pleasure to be around,” said Maiola, former chief of staff to former Sen. Judd Gregg who worked for Bush in every campaign.
“He had this presence that made people feel included and this sense he was always locked in on you when you were speaking to him. The way President Bush practiced politics, represented himself and the country on the international spotlight, is something that people really miss at this stage.”
Dave Carney of Hancock was in the back of that Bush station wagon helping organize the Monadnock region.
Carney would go on to be Gov. John Sununu’s chief of staff and for three years an assistant to President Bush working in the White House political office.
“He would ask me to send a note or call to find out what was going on in Arkansas. He had this amazing network of friends that he always kept in touch with. You always wanted to deliver for him, a great boss,” Carney said.
Carney would help elect Greg Abbott, governor of Texas, and in 2014 the two had a brunch with Bush and his wife, Barbara. His wife of 73 years passed away last April.
“The President talked about people in New Hampshire from 1988 that I hadn’t thought about for years,” Carney said. “He remembered them and he reminisced about them wondering how they were.”
Mrs. Bush’s ancestor Thomas Pierce Jr. was also an ancestor of New Hampshire’s only President, Franklin Pierce (a cousin, four times removed).
In the 1980 campaign, former Govs. Hugh and Judd Gregg were fixated on Ronald Reagan, Bush’s main threat as the older but still charismatic California governor and Hollywood actor.
Longtime North County newspaperman and outdoor writer John Harrigan became a willing prop when Judd Gregg invited him to run with Bush in Jefferson during the summer of 1979.
“They thought a picture of Bush running with me would show up Reagan as an old guy who was on the brink of going to The Home with a capital T and H,” Harrigan said. “I knew I was being used but I didn’t care.”
The wife of late, legendary Chicago Sun Times columnist Robert Novak took a picture of the pair that went out nationwide.
Then there was the infamous closing debate in Nashua where Reagan showed up with all the other GOP contenders for an event Bush thought was a one-on-one.
Reagan gave the “I paid for this microphone” punchline, swept to a New Hampshire win and Bush became for eight years his loyal vice president.
Years later, a Bush aide hunted down Harrigan and invited him to Washington, D.C., to jog with Bush at a local high school cinder track.
“We’re out there and the vice president sees the track coach and says, ‘Hi, Bill, hope we aren’t in the way.’ And then he sees the baseball coach and says, ‘Hey, Tim, please don’t mind if we take a little run,” Harrigan said.
“I remember thinking in a lot of countries this leader would have both coaches and their teams shot for interrupting them and here’s the eternal gentleman George Bush worried that he’s imposing on them.”
John Sununu said rather than be intimidated Bush thrived serving Reagan.
“President George H.W. Bush always considered Lou Gehrig, the Hall of Fame baseball player for the New York Yankees, to be one of his greatest heroes. No doubt, this admiration stemmed in part from Bush’s own baseball career. Like Gehrig, Bush played as a left-handed first baseman, for the Yale baseball team,” Sununu wrote in a memorial to Bush published in Saturday’s Washington Post.
“But more substantially, Gehrig’s career closely mirrored that of Bush. Gehrig played in the shadow of the legendary Babe Ruth, much like Bush did in the shadow of his partner Ronald Reagan. And like Gehrig, Bush operated more comfortably as the soft-spoken member of his partnership. As he said in his 1988 Republican convention acceptance speech: ‘I am a quiet man, but I hear the quiet people others don’t.’ ”
When Dole trounced Bush in the 1988 Iowa caucus it looked like Bush was going to be second banana again.
The next morning Bush greeted reporters outside a Sanders plant in Nashua in sub-zero wind chill temperatures. He gave an emotional upbeat speech from the back of a flatbed truck with the prediction that he would win New Hampshire’s heart this time.
“This man was tough, very tough because some people mistook that grace for weakness but he had none,” Sununu said.
“The next day the press thought we were crazy because we went up to Wolfeboro in the middle of a blinding snowstorm with Ted Williams. I always said he had shaken 50,000 hands in the year leading up to that primary and in those last weeks it felt like he shook another 50,000 more.”
Bush routed Dole in New Hampshire on his way to a 1988 general election landslide win over Massachusetts Gov. Mike Dukakis.
Three years into his presidency Bush was at 90 percent approval after he kicked Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.
But a severe national recession and collapse of New Hampshire’s largest banks hit a year later.
Enter arch-conservative Pat Buchanan who challenged Bush in the GOP primary, campaigning on economic populism and Bush breaking his “No New Taxes” pledge with a federal budget deal to erase deficits.
“His theory was do right and good public policy leads to good politics,” Carney said.
“I don’t know of anything he did from a policy point of view was designed to help him as a Republican.”
Dealing Bush what would become a fatal blow, Buchanan got nearly 40 percent in the New Hampshire primary.
This invited H. Ross Perot a few months later to launch a pro-American trade, isolationist foreign policy campaign as an independent that helped hand victory to Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992.
“He called me in the middle of the campaign and said Clinton was killing him on the economy,” Harrigan said.
“He sounded like a dejected man, not the same positive guy I’d always known.”
The elder Sununu wonders if someone like Bush will ever return to greatness.
“I am losing touch with an electorate that doesn’t seem to value personal contact as much as they do social media interaction,” Sununu said.
“Who knows? The process may be doomed but I would like to see the opportunity to get another leader with the experience and the humanity of George H.W. Bush.”