In 1979, when I was the head writer on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” an extraordinarily modest man named George Herbert Walker Bush told me he planned to run for president and asked me to write humor for him.
This began a nearly 40-year friendship that included overnights at the White House and the Bush family summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine. If you haven’t been, both beat Holiday Inn Express.
Bush was unpretentious. When I was his weekend guest at the vice president’s residence he bounded out to my car and hauled my luggage up to the guest bedroom. How many people have had a sitting vice president as baggage handler?
He pointed to the bed and said: “Couple of guys crashed here before you. Lowell Thomas, Chuck Heston, Billy Graham.”
Many Americans don’t know this but Bush had a penchant for practical jokes. Here are just some of the things I remember.
Once from the Oval Office, he buzzed an assistant that James Baker had left his wallet on the desk. Yes, it was an exploding wallet, but to be fair, President Bush never greeted Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev with a joy buzzer.
His Kennebunkport cigarette boat was equipped with three 300-horsepower engines that had the Secret Service scrambling to catch up. He’d invite guests for a ride, then gun it toward the dock to terrify passengers.
From his bed, he taped a tribute for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. In pajamas, hair mussed a la Stan Laurel, he imagined “how painful it must have been raising a kid who would stick a whoopee cushion on their chairs.”
In 1988, New Orleans hosted the GOP convention that would nominate Bush for president. He led me to the suite of Timberwolf and Tranquility, code names for George and Barbara Bush, and into a room with network cameras and monitors blazing. No other Bushes were in sight. His children were delegates at the Superdome. Barbara led his cheering section from her box.
Suddenly, a half-dozen grandchildren charged in and queued up for a kiss. They’d been granted permission to stay up and see their grandfather nominated. George H.W. Bush – two-term congressman, special envoy to China, U.N. ambassador, CIA director, and vice president – would add one more job title to his resume. Designated babysitter.
The munchkins ricocheted around the room.
“Come on,” high-ranking babysitter said. “No Star Wars in here tonight.”
Grandpa asked an aide for a pointer and announced: “Tonight we’re playing Pointer Man.”
The vice president selected Sam, the then-4-year-old son of sister Doro, to be Pointer Man. Senate confirmation was not required for the appointment.
“You can be our first Pointer Man for five minutes,” grandpa told Sam. “Whenever you see someone you know on those TVs, point at that person.”
Sam had many choices since the networks kept cutting to his uncles, mother, and grandmother. Each time Sam recognized a relative, he stabbed a monitor with the stick. Pointer Man’s creator took him aside.
“You’re doing a terrific job, but you don’t need to hurt the TVs,” grandpa said. “Check behind the drapes. See if there are any Democrats in the room.”
Sam disappeared behind the curtains.
The roll call had begun. In the Colorado delegation, Vice President Bush’s son Neil delivered a longish tribute.
"Come on, Neil,” Dad said. “We want to go over the top in prime time."
But Dad was moved that Neil was moved. A windy Midwest delegate lauded his state’s homegrown products.
“Will have no trouble sleeping tonight,” Dad said.
Brassy pigskin halftime music accompanied a forest of grinning Bush signs, held up by delegates swaying to the beat. A mile away, serene on a pastel sofa on the 39th floor of a cookie-cutter Marriott, the self-effacing object of their affection softly said: "There seems to be an enthusiasm building down there for me."
During a break, Bush and I moved into the kitchen area where he cracked open two Buds, put his feet up, and kicked over an extra ottoman for me. His mother had nicknamed him “Have Half.” Young George would give his friends half of his sandwich, half of his toys.
Back at the Republican National Convention, George W. Bush – a delegate representing Texas – pulled the delegate count over the top.
Maine Senator Olympia Snowe announced that a committee would be formed to go over to the candidate’s hotel and officially notify him of his nomination. It was past Bush’s bedtime, and he lobbed me a weary stare.
“Can’t wait for those people to show up,” the newly picked GOP nominee for president told me.
Soon the family began to dribble in. The mother of all Bushes gave me a happy hug and kicked off her shoes.
George H.W. Bush addressed his clan: “In a minute you'll all be on prime-time TV. Plenty of exposure. Not much in speaking parts, but lots of visual."
That fall, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis would prove no match for Bush. The day before their presidential candidate debate at UCLA, Bush phoned me at my “Tonight Show” office and invited me to a Dodgers game that night.
“Shouldn’t you be boning up for tomorrow?” I asked.
“Done that. And when he sees me on TV at the game, it’ll give him something to think about,” Bush said.
The next night, Dukakis shrank to the occasion.
Mid-September 1990, aboard Air Force One the president had me join him for lunch up front where he drowned his chicken salad in Tabasco sauce. His roots were New England but his heart was Lone Star.
Bush had recently attended the dedication of the Nixon library. “Nixon wasn’t warm and fuzzy, but he gave me good tough advice about dealing with world leaders,” Bush told me.
Bush was troubled by what President Saddam Hussein of Iraq had done to Kuwait when Iraqi troops invaded the small neighboring country.
“He’s taken it off the face of the Earth,” Bush said. “All records confiscated. It would be like Muncie, Indiana disappearing. Don’t know where this is headed, but if the American Embassy is hit, we'll bomb the hell out of him."
Four months later, Bush addressed the nation to announce Operation Desert Storm, the military operation that sent Iraqi forces retreating from Kuwait and back to their own country.
With President Bush, there was no hint of the narcissism we’ve come to expect from our politicians. Bush speechwriters found first-person pronouns crossed out in their drafts. He just hated to say “I.”
He was a hopeless softy with friends, beyond thoughtful. Who do you know who sends handwritten letters thanking you for your Christmas card? When he learned my dad had died just before an Easter weekend, President Bush invited me to spend the weekend with his family at Camp David.
Our country was blessed to have George H.W. Bush as our commander-in-chief. I was even more blessed. I get to brag that he was my friend.