Richard Ben Cramer begins What it Takes, his masterful account of the 1988 presidential race, with the story of then–Vice President George H. W. Bush botching the first pitch of Game One of the 1986 National League Championship Series.
Cramer writes of Bush readying his windup as more than 40,000 fans in Houston’s Astrodome look on. But the vice president can’t quite get his arms up—the bulletproof vest under his shirt hampering his movement—and then he can’t quite get his left arm back, and the result is a throw that looks more like a toss. It’s short. Very short.
And as he skitters off the mound toward the first base line, and the ball on the downcurve of its bounce settles, soundless, into Ashby’s glove, then George Bush does what any old player might do in his shame … what any man might do who knows he can throw, and knows he’s thrown like a girl in her first softball game … what any man might do—but no other politician, no politician who is falling off the mound toward the massed news cameras of the nation, what no politician would do in his nightmares, in front of fifty million coast-to-coast, prime-time votes.
George Bush twists his face into a mush of chagrin, hunches his shoulders like a boy who just dropped the cookie jar, and for one generous freeze-frame moment, buries his head in both hands.
This scene is not the typical stuff of political journalism—the horse racing, the back channeling, the moments involving such activities as “huddling” in “closed-door meetings”—which can often be exciting, the images of important people doing important-sounding things. Cramer takes a different approach, sketching Bush not as someone above us—someone who considers our nation’s most explosive secrets, who connects with foreign leaders via direct line—but as one of us. Someone who does what any man might do.
In the days since Bush’s death on November 30, his family, friends, and the reporters who covered him have told their own stories about the times they saw Bush do what any man might do—write thank-you notes, remember birthdays, bond with grandkids. Each story is a way for the tellers to reflect, in ways people don’t typically do now with respect to politicians, on Bush’s humanity—and on how fortunate they felt for that bit of privilege: I glimpsed what lay behind the veneer.
There’s a reason the internet has been rife this week with those personal stories: Bush showed himself to people. I don’t mean to say he was “authentic,” that consultant-class word that essentially describes politicians who are good at manufacturing homespun versions of themselves. What I mean is that George Bush wouldn’t let the Army land the chopper on hotel grounds when he traveled—“Didn’t want to disturb the guests,” Cramer writes in What It Takes—or let the Secret Service block the streets for the motorcade. “He made them stop at the lights!” Cramer writes. “He didn’t want to disturb the other drivers.” In other words, there are a lot of people in this country who, whether on that October night he botched the first pitch or at a stoplight in Washington, D.C., glimpsed what lay behind the veneer.