My time with President George H.W. Bush

My day with the 41st President of the United States began as a day of great anticipation and even greater uncertainty.

I would be traveling nearly a thousand miles by myself, with only a promise from an unknown White House staffer I would get to interview President George H.W. Bush in a one-on-one, sit down setting.

Let’s just say I didn’t exactly hold my breath that this would actually occur.

The day was Monday, October 26, 1992, just eight days before the 1992 Presidential election.

1992 was an interesting election year, in that the incumbent Republican President was being challenged on two fronts. Democrats had nominated the comeback kid from Arkansas, and there was a billionaire from The President’s home state, destined to be quite a factor in the outcome.

I had pestered the White House fairly often, requesting a Presidential interview.

However, I don’t recall ever getting any kind of an optimistic response, other than the standard, ‘thank you for your request; we’ll keep you in mind the next time we come to Iowa,’ kind of answer. Usually, that really means, ‘there’s not a chance you’ll ever get that interview.’

So, I was pretty shocked when my daughter yelled out our back door on Saturday, October 24, saying, “Dad, the White House is on the line.”

Keep in mind, on that fall morning, I was pretty busy building a new deck on the back of our house in Hudson, and I really didn’t believe her at first.

Then, she said, “Get in here! They want to talk to you.” I skeptically put down my tools and went inside.

Much to my surprise, on the other end of the line, someone claiming to be from the White House said something very close to this: ‘The President is coming to Des Moines Monday night, and, if you can get to Albuquerque, New Mexico, by noon Monday, you can fly back to Iowa on board Air Force One and interview The President on the flight back to Des Moines.’

Needless to say, I was fairly doubtful that this phone offer was real.

Surprise! It turned out to be legitimate. The White House confirmed details with the KWWL News Department and, then, it was just a question of everything going well Monday morning, as far as the flight to New Mexico.

Not to mention all of the things which could happen involving a President in the 48 hours before noon Monday to keep this interview from happening.

The flight to Albuquerque went as scheduled and I arrived about three hours early.

It was a day of what the White House might view as a day of granting coverage to Iowa locals. They allow local coverage from time to time, even today.

My friends and fellow journalists, Bruce Aune of KCRG, and Pete Seyfer, then of KGAN, now an executive with Frank N. Magid Associates, were also invited on this trip. We took different flights, but, the three of us arrived in plenty of time to make our noon deadline.

Covering a President is all about access. Local media seldom get anywhere close to the kind of access afforded the regular White House Press Corps. I’ve covered some Presidential visits where I didn’t get any closer than two hundred feet, it seemed.

This day was a bit different for the three guys from Eastern Iowa.

At noon, we met up with White House representatives, who drove us to a Bush campaign event in downtown Albuquerque.

As I remember, it was a pretty routine campaign rally. There was ample excitement, for sure, especially with the election just eight days out.

I was much more interested in having that rally come to an end and us getting back to the airport for our trip home and the interview on Air Force One. I was still very nervous that interview would never occur.

When we arrived back at the airport, it was time for us to board Air Force One, which is a highly customized version of a Boeing 747-200B. It’s military designation is VC-25A.

In 1992, that particular Boeing aircraft being used as Air Force One was only two years old. The White House started using the VC-25A in 1990.

I will admit, it was an exciting moment to be confirmed as one of the names on the Air Force One manifest for that day’s flight to Des Moines, where The President would spend the night and hold an event the next day.

Walking up the steps of Air Force One was a unique thrill, for sure. It felt like being a part of history in many ways. That probably sounds strange, but, that’s a bit how it felt.

I remember we boarded Air Force One by walking out to the tarmack of the Albuquerque Airport and using a set of stairs near the rear of the fuselage, beyond the left wing. I don’t recall where we ended up in the plane, but, not in the network news press corps section. We were never with the regular White House Press Corps reporters in their assigned section of the aircraft.

I remember the seats were wide and comfortable, though I can’t remember what color they were.

I do remember each seat had a phone available for use during the flight. I used the phone in my seat to do a ‘Live’ report for the KWWL 5 o’clock news during the flight back to Iowa.

‘Live Shots,’ as we call them in the television news business, had been a staple of my reporting for years. I had reported ‘Live’ via satellite from many locations, including Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm in 1991.

Reporting ‘Live’ in flight from Air Force One, even though it was a phone report, was a first for me, and a unique experience, given the cell phone connections of 1992 were not exactly those of today.

However, I suspect when you’re on Air Force One, you can likely assume the technology is a few months, if not years, ahead of that being used by the general public at the time.

I can’t remember who went first, but, about mid-flight, Bruce, Pete and I each got our chance to interview President Bush in a sit down interview, one on one, for about five minutes.

There were no restrictions placed on our questions. No one said, ‘this or that topic is off limits.’

A White House camera crew recorded the interview for me, and then gave me the video tape of that interview. Yes. Most television newsrooms were still using videotape in 1992.

In our case, it was a videotape format called DVC Pro. I actually loved shooting and editing with the DVC Pro cassette format, because it was easy to work with and very fast for that time period in broadcasting.

Obviously, a far cry from the digital video formats available to us today in non-lineal editing.

President Bush was friendly, courteous and very professional. He seemed genuinely interested in sitting down and talking about Iowa. Keep in mind, he had to have known, at the time, that his campaign was in trouble, just a week out from election day.

If he was concerned about that at all, he certainly didn’t show it on that day, as we talked about several topics, including Iowa agriculture.

After the interview, much to my surprise, The President gave Bruce, Pete and me a personal tour of Air Force One.

How remarkable, I remember thinking. The President of the United States has already taken time to do three separate interviews with three Iowa television news reporters, and now, he’s taking time to show these same three guys from Iowa his White House in the sky. I was really taken back by that, in a very positive way.

Another thing I clearly remember is how very excited he was to ‘show us’ something.

He said, “You guys, come with me. There’s something I want to show you.” As we walked through the plane, I remember him saying something like, ‘Try not to wake up Jim. He’s getting a little sleep.’

He was referring to Secretary of State, Jim Baker, who was lying down on a couch, taking a nap.

We quietly walked by Secretary Baker and into the area The President wanted to show us. Turns out, it was a new bathroom for Air Force One. It had just been installed or remodeled, I don’t remember which, but, he was truly excited about that. A little like an kid in a toy store. It was very delightful and, in that, I saw someone I hadn’t seen before.

But, we weren’t done, He took us to the communications systems area of the aircraft and told us a lot of the equipment and avionics had been made by Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids. That was impressive, to say the least.

I was just so surprised, I guess, at how personable and how likeable he was.

I did not remember seeing that side of him on the campaign trail, where everyone seems to think everything has to be just so incredibly ‘Presidential.’

Had Americans seen that side of George H.W. Bush throughout his Presidency and throughout the ’92 campaign, who knows what course history might have taken. Remember, he lost to Bill Clinton by just 5 million votes, and Ross Perot influenced the outcome so dramatically, as Perot received nearly 20-million votes.

President Bush’s amazing personality of that day is something I’ll never forget, mainly because of his enthusiasm and his focus on the guys from Iowa.

He didn’t have to be that way. He didn’t have to give us that tour after the interviews. He wasn’t arrogant. He wasn’t boastful. He wasn’t condescending. He was The President, but, he treated us as equals.

And, remarkably, he wasn’t in a hurry to get rid of us. He certainly could have cast us off at any moment, and we would not have been surprised, in the least. But, he didn’t do that.

He made us feel like his day evolved around us, and I’ll never forget that.

Remember. Here’s a guy who had been shot down and survived as a 20-year old Navy Pilot during World War Two. I certainly have no personal knowledge, but, that kind of experience must leave a lasting impact on the way one views life and how that person treats other people. I know the way he treated us left a lasting impression on me.

Pete Seyfer says he felt that 1992 Monday “was truly an unbelievable experience.”

About the trip, Pete added, “For me, one of the best of my broadcast career. I remember how personable he was…..something I don’t think he shared enough in public.”

Echoing Pete’s sentiments, it was a remarkable day, and one I will always remember with a joyful heart.

Ron Steele

Ron Steele

KWWL Evening Anchor
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