George H.W. Bush and Dan Rather

George Will, whose tribute to George H.W. Bush appears in today’s Washington Post, once called Bush a “lapdog.” Bush responded that Will wasn’t exactly a linebacker for the Chicago Bears.

Will reportedly was persona non grata at the White House during the Bush 41 presidency. And when former President Reagan suggested that Will help prepare Bush for his debates in 1992 (as Will had done for Reagan in 1980), the candidate reportedly responded, “I’m sorry, but there are standards.”

Bush 41 was no lapdog. George Will underestimated him.

Will was not alone. Indeed, the theme of Tevi Troy’s tribute to Bush is that he “was always being underestimated.”

Tevi, a presidential historian supplies telling examples. My favorite, naturally, involves Dan Rather. Tevi writes:

One of my favorite Bush stories is the time that he took on CBS’s Dan Rather—another underestimator, then at the top of his game as anchor of the most important news show on the most important network (boy, how things have changed.) In January 1988, Bush appeared on a five-minute segment with Rather, who had planned to ambush the vice president regarding how much he knew about the Iran-Contra affair. Bush had denied direct involvement in the scheme to sell arms to Iran in exchange for the release of U.S. hostages and use of the proceeds to pay for aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, whom Congress had forbidden the Reagan administration from helping. Bush’s media tormentors loved the possibilities: either Bush was involved, which would mean he had lied, or he was not involved, which would mean that he was out of the loop as vice president.

Bush, however, had no intention of falling into this trap. With the help of GOP media guru Roger Ailes—still years away from Fox News fame—Bush came up with a plan to trap Rather instead. Ailes, knowing how CBS was notorious for cutting and replaying excerpts of interviews that painted “bad guys”—Republicans and business executives—in a bad light, insisted on Bush’s behalf that CBS conduct the entire interview live. CBS wasn’t happy, but a live interview was the price for getting Bush into Rather’s interrogation chambers, so the network went along.

The concession was important. A live interview prevented CBS from doing its standard chop job, and it had other advantages as well, as Rather would soon find out. . . .

According to Time [Magazine], Rather was “coached as if he were a candidate preparing for a debate or a pugilist preparing for a fight, rather than a journalist going into an interview.” From the start of the interview, Rather pressed Bush on Iran-Contra. He was so intent on tripping up Bush that even Time acknowledged that Rather “crossed the line between objectivity and emotional involvement.”

But what Rather did not know was that Bush had done some serious prep as well. Bush, with his coach Ailes in the room with him, hit Rather with a question of his own: “How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York? Would you like that?”

Rather, who had indeed walked off the set to protest a tennis match cutting into his program time, was caught off guard. CBS, having agreed to the live interview, could not avoid showing the whole exchange, including the part embarrassing to Rather. Bush loved it, later saying to the still-open microphone: “The bastard didn’t lay a glove on me.”. . . .

George H.W. Bush may have been classy. In fact, he was. But he could recognize bastards and he usually knew how to deal with them.