George H.W. Bush, trailing Democrat Michael Dukakis in the heat of the 1988 presidential campaign, briefly but seriously considered Hollywood renaissance man Clint Eastwood to be his running mate, a former Bush aide says.
The revelation comes from more than 350 hours of audio interviews with 50 senior officials from the George H.W. Bush administration released today by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and Bush Presidential Library Foundation. The decade-long oral history project documents the life and times of the 41st presidency.
“When we were way behind. Honestly, [Eastwood] was suggested in not an altogether unserious – Well, he was a mayor. He was a Republican mayor,” former Bush campaign chairman and Secretary of State James Baker said.
Eastwood served one term as mayor of the conservative ocean side community Carmel, Calif., from 1986-1988.
“Anyway, it was shot down pretty quick. But we were looking at an 18-point deficit,” Baker said, suggesting the campaign was looking for a boost from its VP choice. Bush, who also considered Sen. Dan Quayle, R-Ind.; Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan.; Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo.; and Rep. Jack Kemp, R-N.Y., ultimately settled on Quayle.
Quayle was “maybe not the most qualified, but he brings other attributes that are extraordinarily important,” Baker said of his initial reaction to Bush’s choice.
The interviews, conducted by a panel of university scholars between 1999 and 2011, paint an intimate and detailed portrait of Bush and his team as they navigated the 1988 election campaign and transition to the White House, legislative affairs, two Supreme Court appointments and later a series of foreign crises, including the first Gulf War.
Some additional highlights from the tapes:
PANCAKES & PRESIDENTIAL DAILY BRIEFING. The interviews reveal a president who took a serious and active approach to national security and defense, regularly involving himself in the minutiae of the issues, even over breakfast. Aides describe Bush as a religious reader and analyzer of the presidential daily briefing. “On the Saturday before the coup in the Soviet Union [in 1990] we were in Kennebunkport, and the president and I were sitting on the deck of his house at Walker’s Point, looking out over the Atlantic and eating pancakes and he was reading the briefing,” said former CIA director and Bush national security advisor Robert Gates, “and the last item, the article in the briefing was CIA’s view that there was very likely to be a coup attempt… I’ll never forget the president turning to me and chewing on his pancakes and saying, “Should I take this seriously?” And I said, “yes, and here’s why.”
SETTING POLICY ON THE FLY. On at least two major foreign policy positions, Bush made impactful public pronouncements without consulting with his staff ahead of time. Gates recalls the first time U.S. support for German reunification was articulated came in an off-the-cuff comment by Bush at a Helena, Mont., press conference in 1989. “I called [National Security Adviser] Brent [Scowcroft] right after that and said, ‘Brent, we now have a policy on German reunification.’ He said, ‘What is it?’ I said, ‘We’re for it.’ He said, ‘Who says so?’ I said, ‘The President.’ He said, ‘Oh, shit.’”
After Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991, Bush famously drew a line in the sand and said, “This shall not stand.” Vice President Dan Quayle says that comment came out of the blue, ahead of a full U.S. assessment of the situation to determine whether Saddam Hussein might withdraw. “He came into the Oval Office first, and I was there… He said, ‘How’d I do?’ and we said, ‘Oh, good.’ Brent [Scowcroft] said, ‘Where’d you get that ‘this will not stand’?” He said, ‘That’s mine.’ ‘Well, yes, but, where’d you get it?’ He said, ‘Well, that’s what I feel.’… Not that he was wrong in doing it, but he just caught everybody off guard a little bit because it was so definite and so dramatic.”
TAPPING CLARENCE THOMAS. Bush famously called Thomas, his second pick for the Supreme Court, “the best qualified person” when nominating him to the bench. But Bush administration Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, who says he did a “double take” at the characterization, clarifies that what Bush really meant “was that this was the best qualified African-American candidate we could find… He desperately wanted to make an appointment of an African-American. But he wasn’t going to appoint a Democrat…. So, that’s the best – he was saying it’s the best we can do.”
TENNIS SHORTS & THE OVAL OFFICE: Bush revered the Oval Office so much so that he refused to wear anything but a coat and tie in the room. On one occasion, aide Barbara Kilberg says she met Bush at the tennis court and wanted to walk to the Oval, but he insisted upon changing clothes first. “He said, ‘where are you going?’ and I said, ‘I’m going to your office.’ ‘No, no,’ he said, ‘I’m in tennis shorts.’ I said, ‘So?’ He said, ‘No, just wait, I’ll be back.’ So he went into the residence, got dressed, put on a coat and tie, walked into the Oval Office, handed me the paper and left. But he would not go into that office in tennis togs. He didn’t believe that was appropriate.”
REGRETS OVER ‘NO NEW TAXES’ PLEDGE: Legislative Affairs director Fred McClure says Bush “didn’t do a very good job” communicating why it was necessary to suspend his famous “no new taxes” pledge. “I think it may have contributed to what ultimately happened in the election in 1992, but I don’t think it was a defining moment,” McClure says. “I think in retrospect, the defining moment for him, at least from a policy standpoint, was the whole Persian Gulf thing.”
WATCH GLANCE IN ’92 DEBATES: When Bush famously glanced down at his watch during the 1992 debates, his critics slammed him for appearing restless, agitated and eager to get off the stage. But Phillip Brady, assistant staff secretary, explains that Bush was really sending a signal to moderator Carole Simpson about a long-winded Ross Perot. “If you watch the tape, you’ll see he looked at her then his watch suggesting clearly, ‘Hey, Perot’s time is up’ – meaning he’s filibustering,” which is exactly what Simpson forbid before the candidates took the stage.