Former Indiana Republican Chairman Mike McDaniel with President George H.W. Bush.
Former Indiana Republican Chairman Mike McDaniel with President George H.W. Bush.

INDIANAPOLIS – It isn’t an easy thing to get a former president to headline a state party dinner, but Mike McDaniel pulled it off in 1999. Former President George H.W. Bush was on the bill as the keynote.

McDaniel went to the airport to pick up Bush and the first thing the former president said was, “OK, who’s for my son in Indiana and who’s not?”

Bush’s vice president, Dan Quayle, had already declared for the 2000 race, but there was momentum gathering for Texas Gov. George W. Bush. “Well,” McDaniel said, “Doc Bowen’s for Dan Quayle ...”

“How can Doc Bowen be for Dan Quayle?” an incredulous Bush asked. Well, the GOP chairman said, he’s from Indiana. “He’s doing it because he’s a Hoosier.” To which Bush responded, “Dan Quayle lives in Arizona.” 

The Bush political dynasty would change Indiana politically, going back to 1980 when after Ronald Reagan flirted with the idea of bringing former President Gerald Ford on the ticket, it appeared Sen. Richard Lugar might be The One. L. Keith Bulen was in charge of Reagan’s New England campaign and had propelled Lugar onto the national stage. But as we know, Reagan opted for Bush, changing the trajectory of national politics. 

The two would forge the modern apex of the American Republican Party, sidelining President Carter in 1980, retaking the U.S. Senate that year, and extending GOP White House control for 12 years. Running in 1988, Bush picked Quayle for the ticket and made one of the most fateful calls in American politics, telling the national convention, “Read my lips, no new taxes.”

It was not a vow that Bush 41 would keep, opting instead for a budget deal that included a minimal tax increase (less than Reagan would seek during his second term) with corresponding spending cuts from Democrats. While Reagan had a GOP Senate for six of his eight years, Bush had a Democratic Congress in his entire term. It would doom Bush’s reelection bid in 1992, when he lost to Bill Clinton. However, Bush’s fateful decision led to a decade of prosperity, and even a budget surplus.

It ignited a new generation of conservative talk radio with people like Rush Limbaugh. It launched Newt Gingrich on his trajectory to a GOP House takeover in 1994. It made almost any talk of any kind of tax hike politically lethal. And it elevated George W. Bush to the White House, clipping Quayle in 1999 and John McCain in 2000, launching an era when Bushes and Clintons dominated national politics, the two clans winning five presidential elections, while losing two others, including Donald Trump’s stunning upset over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

President Bush 41 presided over the end of the Cold War with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and then the Soviet Union, rolled back Iraqi aggression with the reconquest of Kuwait in 1991 via Operation Desert Storm, signed the historic Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that opened access in public spaces to millions of citizens. There was the Clean Air Act and on Dec. 12, 1991, Bush signed the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Act, which was a historic effort between once-arch rivals to contain nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in the dissolved Soviet Union from reaching the hands of terror networks and other malefactors. Never in world history had such an enemy peacefully stepped in to work with an adversary for the safety of mankind. Not a shot was fired. Instead of the dreaded big bang, the Soviet Union ended in a whimper.

Bush 41 backed the reunification of Germany (France, Great Britain and Russia all were vehemently opposed), and refused to gloat, fearing it would be an affront to Mikhail Gorbachev and his successor, Boris Yeltsin.

The Reagan/Bush years reshaped turn of the century America and the world in profound ways as the U.S. emerged as the sole superpower that would stand unchallenged until the emergence of China during this century’s second decade.

Americans and Hoosiers would eventually reject the Bushes and Clintons. HPI remembers seeing a sign in New Salisbury, Ind., in 2015: “No more Clintons or Bushes” and that created the environment for the emergence of Donald Trump, who in turn elevated Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to the national ticket.

Vice President Pence paid tribute to President Bush shortly after he returned to the U.S. Capitol to lie in state on Monday. “President Bush was a great leader who made a great difference in the life of this nation. But he was also just a good man who was devoted to his wife, his family, and his friends,” Pence said. “I was lucky enough to meet him in 1988 when he was vice president and I was a 29-year-old just getting started in politics. Then, as always, I was struck by his approachability. There was a kindness about the man that was evident to everyone who ever met him. All his years in public service were characterized by kindness, modesty, and patriotism. He was so modest in fact, that he never wrote an autobiography. But he did leave a record of his life in the thousands of letters that he wrote.”

Pence added, “President Bush described CAVU, in his words, as ‘the kind of weather we Navy pilots wanted when we were to fly off our carrier in the Pacific.’ And he once wrote a letter to his children saying that CAVU, in his words, ‘describes my own life as it has been over the years, as it is right now: Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited.’ You know, that may well describe the essence of this man. And it may well have been his vision. The vision he had for his life, for his children, his children’s children, and his country: No barriers, no boundaries, no limits.”

“This idea that he was just this humble, modest guy isn’t really accurate,” Quayle said in an interview Saturday with IndyStar. “He was confident and determined. He never raised his voice, he had great respect for people, ... not because he was humble and modest ... but confident and determined, a winner. 

“When you pushed him into a corner, he got tough,” Quayle said. “You don’t become a winner like that if you aren’t tough.”

When Bush sought the presidency on his own after two terms as President Reagan’s vice president, he was consigned by Washington Post columnist George Will as a “lap dog” and a “wimp.” While working as a reporter at the Elkhart Truth, I received a call from a sailor from the USS Finback, which was nearby after Bush was shot down on Sept. 2, 1944, while flying a mission over Chichi Jima. Bush had floated on a raft for several hours and was surprised to see the sub surface for his rescue. He spent the next month with the crew, which took him back to Hawaii. The sailor’s take: George H.W. Bush was anything but a wimp. He was a true American hero.

For Chairman Mike McDaniel, Bush was a GOP asset made in heaven. Prior to that 1999 keynote, McDaniel escorted Bush to a room at the Westin. The chairman had a cache of memorabilia to sign. It was one of those, “I hate to ask, but…” things. Bush would “sign every piece,” McDaniel said.

To McDaniel, Bush was a gentleman who almost never said the word “I.” McDaniel sees Bush as a vanishing breed as truth falls away into lies, while modesty and humility seem to be archaic concepts.