DES MOINES — Kind, thoughtful and a strong leader with serious foreign policy chops: that is how Iowans who knew him well remember President George H.W. Bush, who died Friday and was honored at a state funeral Wednesday.
George H.W. Bush was the nation’s 41st president and father to its 43rd.
The elder Bush conducted presidential campaigns in Iowa in the 1980, 1988 and 1992 election cycles.
“(Iowans) saw a remarkably genuine person,” said David Oman, a former Iowa Republican state party chairman and chief of staff to two Republican governors, of Bush. “He impressed everybody as someone who was thoughtful, generous, curious, respectful and kind. Someone who certainly had the ability but also the personal traits to become a very good president for our country.”
Although Ronald Reagan earned the Republican Party’s nomination in 1980 and served two terms as president, George H.W. Bush won that year’s Republican Iowa caucuses. Reagan eventually chose Bush as his running mate, and Bush served both terms as vice president.
Bush was “a self-described asterisk” at the outset of that first campaign, Oman said. But Bush did the work and conducted the kind of retail politics that resonates with Iowa voters, Oman said.
“No one outside of a handful of party leaders knew who he was, so George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara and their then-young sons came out here and spent virtually a year moving around out state and getting to know Iowans,” said Oman, who at the time was chief of staff to Gov. Robert Ray. “No one knows for sure how many people were touched or met them or had a brief conversation or received a follow-up note. But it would be in the thousands, probably well over 10,000.”
Oman said that personable style of campaigning made Bush popular in Iowa.
“H.W. Bush would go out of his way to meet people and touch them and talk to them as a person, not as someone whose vote he was trying to earn,” Oman said. “You were comfortable being around him.”
Bush returned to Iowa in 1987 and 1988 for another presidential campaign. This time he finished third in the caucuses — behind Bob Dole and Pat Robertson — but eventually secured the nomination.
Bush was unopposed in the Republican primary during his 1992 re-election bid, which he lost to Democrat Bill Clinton.
The political winds in Iowa were different when Bush returned in 1987, Oman said. Dole was a popular U.S. senator from the neighbor state of Kansas, and Roberts was popular with evangelical voters, whose electoral clout in Iowa was just starting to bloom.
Sally Novetzke of Cedar Rapids said she was impressed with Bush from the first time she met him in the late 1970s. Novetzke served as U.S. ambassador to Malta from 1989 to 1993 and was friends with Bush and his wife, Barbara, for many years.
“He was like a Midwest person,” she said. “He couldn’t have been friendlier.”
Many of the tributes to Bush have noted a life full of public service. Prior to serving as vice president and president, Bush was a U.S. Navy pilot, a Congressman from Texas, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
He has also been remembered for his role in handling the end of the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia.
“He was not a particularly gifted speaker but he was a deeply thoughtful decision maker, always putting public service above ambition,” Jim Leach, a former Republican Congressman from eastern Iowa, said in an email.
Leach, who served in Congress during the Reagan and Bush administrations, said he knew Bush for almost 50 years. Leach said Bush’s achievements include “managing the Cold War in a low-key rather than a bullying way when the Berlin wall came tumbling down, thus helping to facilitate a peaceful unification of Germany (and) leading a war in the (Persian) Gulf with 50 allies and more support from the Security Council of the U.N. than the U.S. Senate, the only war in our history that was paid almost entirely for by our allies.”
Bush’s thank-you notes became well-known, but Leach recalled a time in Iowa when Bush wrote a batch of apology notes.
According to Leach, he was with Bush on the campaign trail in Iowa in 1988 when Leach told Bush about the famous bakery and Dutch letters in Pella. Bush suggested they stop, and he visited with people there for roughly a half-hour. The U.S. Secret Service security precautions closed roads around downtown Pella and caused enough traffic congestion that by the time Bush got back on the road to the Des Moines airport, central Iowa talk radio was awash in callers talking about the traffic jam.
“So George spent the trip to the airport and the trip on Air Force II back to D.C. doing nothing except writing handwritten notes of apology to everyone who called in to local radio stations to complain,” Leach said. “Probably no modern president ever wrote as many handwritten notes as George, and this episode probably caused more than any other event.”
Leach said the following week, the local talk radio was flooded again -- this time with callers expressing their appreciation that the vice president had written those apology letters.