My New Jersey Memories of George Herbert Walker Bush

When you served in the administration of any member of the great American Bush family, as I did in the case of Bush 43, George W. Bush, you do not perceive yourself as being simply hired help.  Instead, you feel as if you have been privileged to be granted honorary membership into the Bush family. 

So I felt genuine sadness at the passing of Barbara Bush earlier this year and last weekend’s passing of George Herbert Walker Bush.  They both constituted the quintessence of American patriotism and universal decency.

When I think of the connection between the Bush family and New Jersey, two names immediately come to my mind: Larry Bathgate and Eugene McCaffrey.

Lawrence E. “Larry” Bathgate is an attorney of unsurpassed competence, ethics, character, and political acumen.  His law firm of Bathgate, Wegener, and Wolf is in Lakewood, the community of Larry’s roots.  He has been a leading fundraiser in the campaigns of Bush 41, Bush 43, and Jeb Bush, as well as Tom Kean, but the Bushes do not regard Larry as a mere fundraiser.  They consider him to be a family member, and this is reflected in their mutual loyalty. 

Before I had the good fortune to meet Larry, my first introduction to Bushworld was made through the late Eugene J. “Gene” McCaffrey, Sr.  It took place during the 1980 primary election campaign of George Herbert Walker Bush, of which Gene served as the New Jersey campaign manager. 

My career as a civilian attorney had begun in 1977 in Gloucester County after completing a three year tour of duty as an officer in the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps.   In that year, I became an associate in the then Woodbury law firm of Herman, Pearson, and Crass, in which one of New Jersey’s leading legislative and judicial figures over the past half century, Martin A. “Marty” Herman was a founding partner.   

Marty was a liberal Democrat, while I was a conservative Republican.  This did not matter – Marty provided me with a superb education in both the fields of law and politics during my tenure with the firm from 1977 until 1981.  He was an historic figure in the New Jersey General Assembly, having been the prime sponsor of the New Jersey generic drug legislation and extensive revision of the New Jersey criminal code in his capacity as Assembly Judiciary Committee chair.  Today, Marty is a retired judge of the New Jersey Superior Court, and I am delighted that my friendship with him continues. 

Out of loyalty to Marty, I stayed out of Gloucester County politics, although I did involve myself extensively in national and New Jersey statewide Republican campaigns.  It was in my capacity as Marty’s young associate attorney doing substantial probate work that I first met Gene McCaffrey, who was then serving as the Surrogate of Gloucester County.  In the political realm, Gene was then the chair of the Gloucester County Republican Committee. 

Gene McCaffrey was an outstanding public servant.  He was Deptford Township’s first elected mayor. He served as the Gloucester County sheriff, and six years as freeholder director. In 1982, he began his service in the cabinet of incoming Governor Tom Kean as Commissioner of the Department of Personnel.  He was, above all, a first rate gentleman of competence, ethics, and community service.  

I would see Gene McCaffrey on Broad Street in Woodbury virtually every day during those years of 1977 through 1981.  The nature of my conversations with him changed in 1979 from the exchange of pleasantries to the then presidential candidacy of George Herbert Walker Bush. 

Most of New Jersey’s leading Republican figures had earlier endorsed Ronald Reagan, but Gene loyally remained committed to his good friend George Bush.  It was not an easy call.  Reagan had been a highly successful governor of California and possessed the skills which well merited him the title of The Great Communicator.   George Bush then had the most outstanding political and governmental resume in American politics: a former member of the US House of Representatives, Chair of the Republican National Committee, Ambassador to the United Nations, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and chief of the liaison office to the People’s Republic of China. 

While Bush began the campaign on a high note with his victory in the Iowa caucuses in January, 1980, the outcome of the nomination battle was never really in doubt after Reagan won a landslide victory in the February, 1980 New Hampshire primary.  There was, however, one more Bush high point:  his victory in the April, 1980 Pennsylvania primary.  Soon after that, however, Reagan clinched the nomination after winning the requisite number of delegates.  

It was around the time of that Pennsylvania primary that I received a phone call from Gene McCaffrey, inviting me to a meeting with six other people and George Bush.  I was most pleased to receive the invitation, but even more pleased when I arrived and found that Gene had reserved a space for me right next to George Bush. 

Bush 41 was a superb listener.  He began the meeting by speaking briefly about his differences on the issues with Reagan, most notably on the tax cut issue and the Equal Rights Amendment, which Bush supported and Reagan opposed.  He then went around the room asking our opinions and suggestions about what he ought to do. 

I stated to him that he would never prevail in the campaign by emphasizing his differences with Reagan on the issues; the GOP grassroots was solidly with Reagan in that regard.  I did feel, however, that the foreign policy failures of the Carter administration proved how necessary it was to elect a president with the most experience in the federal government, particularly on foreign policy.  Accordingly, I then stated that this should be the message of the remainder of the Bush campaign.  

There was hardly anything novel or politically incisive about my observation, but it did strike a responsive note with George Bush.  He kept looking in my direction and stated, “I want to come back and discuss what this gentleman just said about my experience.”   Naturally, I found it quite flattering! 

Three months later on Wednesday night at the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit, Ronald Reagan announced that he was recommending George Bush to be his Vice Presidential running mate.  The next morning, I saw Gene on Broad Street in Woodbury.  Gene told me that Bush himself had called him and asked him to fly out to Detroit for the final night of the convention. 

And then, Gene said something to me that I will never forget: 

“Alan, just remember.  Some day, you will be able to tell your children and grandchildren that you once advised George Bush!” 

I will have this in mind tomorrow night, when I am scheduled to light the Chanukah Menorah with my granddaughter, Quinn, the beautiful Jewish girl with the beautiful Irish name!  

Now, a brief assessment of George Bush, the man and George Bush, the president:    

There was one outright character assassination attack on George Herbert Walker Bush that I always deemed to be repulsive in the extreme.  George Herbert Walker Bush demonstrated the ultimate in physical and moral courage and patriotism by his service in World War 2.  Yet vile individuals, more often than not physically unfit cowardly male poltroons, deliberately distorted his genuine gentlemanliness and defamed him by calling him a wimp.  This was indeed despicable. 

Together, the presidencies of Ronald Wilson Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush constituted the most successful American foreign policy governance of the 20th century.  Reagan and Bush were conservative internationalists who respected the sovereignty of nations while avoiding the opposing false allures of a romanticized isolationism and futile crusading neoconservatism.  The Reagan policy formulation resulted in the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the liberation of the captive nations of Eastern Europe.  The foreign policy management of Bush 41 resulted in the avoidance of an American-Russian armed conflict as the Cold War ended.   

There were two other outstanding legacies of the presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush.  

The first was his success in effecting the passage of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which constituted a monumental step forward in curbing the dangers to the environment and public health arising from acid rain, urban air pollution, and toxic air emissions.    

The second was his sponsorship and signing into law the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Indeed, these two Bush 41 legacies provide compelling evidence that political conservatism does not have to be antithetical to an activist governmental agenda in enhancing the quality of life in this nation. 

New Jersey can always be justifiably proud of its connection with the Bush family.  In a real sense, the passing of George Herbert Walker Bush signifies the departure of the greatest of the Greatest Generation.  The memory of his accomplishments, ethics, decency, and civility will serve as a consolation to both America and the world in the difficult days ahead.

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman. 

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