Arkansans note his visits, encouragement
Written by: Frank Lockwood
Published by: Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
As the nation prepares to bury former President George Herbert Walker Bush, Arkansans paused Saturday to remember the 41st commander in chief, recalling his trips to Arkansas, his record of accomplishment and his many acts of kindness.
“He really typifies what we see and admire about a patriotic American that has served his country throughout his life,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said.
As a Texas politician in the 1960s and 1970s, Bush knew what it was like to be a Republican underdog in a solidly Democratic state.
Again and again, he encouraged Arkansas Republicans, embracing candidates who seemed destined to lose.
As vice president, he backed Hutchinson’s unsuccessful 1986 Senate campaign against incumbent Dale Bumpers. Hutchinson finished with 37.7 percent of the vote, even though Bush visited the state to champion him.
As president, Bush supported Mike Huckabee’s 1992 Senate bid, phoning to encourage the Republican nominee. Both men lost in Arkansas on that Election Day.
Decades later, victorious and ascendant, Arkansas Republicans remain grateful for Bush’s support.
“He was always a source of encouragement in times of loss. He knew the tough battles we were facing. He’d experienced loss and setbacks himself,” Hutchinson said. “He never gave up on his own political path, and he never gave up on the voters [or] America.”
Huckabee, who would go on to serve as Arkansas’ lieutenant governor and then governor, first met Bush on a campaign trip during the Texan’s unsuccessful 1980 presidential campaign.
He saw Bush again, four years later, at a Bassmaster tournament in Pine Bluff. While in Arkansas, the then-vice president handed out trophies and made good use of a rod and reel.
“President Bush was a very avid angler,” Huckabee said. “For him it wasn’t just ceremonial; he really, truly loved the outdoors and loved to fish.”
Regardless of the setting — fishing hole or party enclave — Bush was always a gentleman, Huckabee said.
“I always found him to be a most remarkable human being. He was always extremely gracious, kind, you know, everything he did was done with real class,” Huckabee said.
Though he spent much of his life in Houston, Texas; Kennebunkport, Maine; and Washington, D.C., Bush was no stranger to Arkansas.
As a congressman, he traveled to Fayetteville in 1969 for the legendary Texas-Arkansas football game, attending the event with President Richard Nixon and one of Bush’s congressional colleagues, U.S. Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt, R-Ark.
Nearly a decade later, he holed up for a few days near Eureka Springs, meeting with Hammerschmidt and other supporters as they laid the groundwork for Bush’s 1980 presidential campaign.
In 1992, with Walmart founder Sam Walton dying of cancer, Bush flew to Northwest Arkansas to bestow the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Walton.
“It was a big day for Walmart, for the Walton family and for the state of Arkansas,” recalls Jonathan Barnett, a former state representative, Bush presidential delegate and longtime Republican National Committee member.
One of Bush’s best friends on Capitol Hill was Hammerschmidt. Both men had won office in 1966, both were former fighter pilots and both were fond of motorboats.
After casting their final House votes, they would sometimes race down to the Potomac River and zip across the water, according to Hammerschmidt’s son, John Arthur Hammerschmidt.
The two lawmakers were frequent dining companions.
“A favorite meal of theirs was country ham with red-eye gravy and eggs … sort of a country breakfast. They liked to eat that for lunch or even dinner. After Bush retired from Congress, he would come back and have lunch with my father in the members’ dining room,” the younger Hammerschmidt recalled.
The meals continued, sporadically at least, even after Bush became vice president and president.
“I just have the utmost love and respect for President Bush. He was such a down-to-earth person,” Hammerschmidt said.
U.S. Rep. French Hill, a Republican from Little Rock, met Bush in 1979, shortly before the start of the 1980 presidential campaign.
Hill would later serve in the Bush administration: first in the Treasury Department, later at the White House.
Hill still has a stack of notes from the president.
Lots of people received such personal missives over the years — praise for a job well done, congratulations on the birth of a child.
“Many, many of these were all handwritten. He’d write them from Air Force Two, he’d write them from Air Force One. He’s left-handed, so he perpetually had a pen in his left hand and a note card in his right hand all day long,” Hill said.
Bush demonstrated the importance of personal diplomacy. He believed in building relationships, Hill said.
“You don’t want to meet people for the first time when you’re negotiating with them or when you’re in conflict or when you have to accomplish a major decision with a short time frame, whether it’s a financial crisis or an international crisis of some kind. Building those personal relationships is essential to good diplomacy [for] the United States and a well-functioning democracy here at home,” Hill said.
Bush was a “true gentleman” and set a good example for those who follow, said U.S. Sen. John Boozman, a Republican from Rogers.
“The president was a person that very much respected the opinion of others and tried to reach common ground and did have a lot of civility, which was a great example for us then and certainly it’s a great example now,” Boozman said.
U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, a Republican from Jonesboro, who served as an explosive ordnance disposal technician in the U.S. Army, helped with security when then-Vice President Bush was traveling.
In that capacity, he was able to observe Bush up close.
While they never spoke, Bush made it clear that he valued the security team’s work.
“There was eye contact and head nods, you know, just gestures that he was aware we were there. … There was a sense of appreciation and a kindness from him,” Crawford said.
Crawford left the military in 1989, just as the Bush presidency was beginning. The voters in 1988 chose well, Crawford said.
“The historic perspective shows that he was a phenomenal commander in chief. He had all the credentials and handled it probably as good or better than anybody in my lifetime,” he said.
Hutchinson said Bush’s service to the nation — before and after his White House years — may be unparalleled.
Even in his final years, Bush raised millions of dollars to help with disaster relief.
“I can’t think of anybody in American history that has served in so many different positions,” he said.
“The country continued to call upon him, whether as a soldier or as a statesman, as a diplomat, as president and then … as former president,” Hutchinson said. “It’s a model of how you conduct yourself and continue to contribute even after you leave the presidency.”