Debate at UR
1992 event was pivotal for Bush and the school.
Many Richmonders still recall that President George H.W. Bush came to town for a memorable, nationally televised presidential debate in 1992. The event had the city buzzing for months before and after its Oct. 15 occurrence.
The incumbent Bush, a Republican, faced independent candidate H. Ross Perot and the eventual winner of that election, Democrat Bill Clinton, in a town-meeting format at the University of Richmond that pundits to this day credit — or blame — for changing the course of the election.
A couple of mistakes Bush made during the debate may have raised questions that helped bring about his defeat.
At one point, the cameras caught him looking at his watch. Was he anxious for the debate to end?
At another point, he was unable to answer a question about the cost of a loaf of bread. Was he out of touch with the concerns of ordinary voters?
I was on the university task force that helped to produce the debate but didn’t actually interact with the president. In fact, security was so tight and time so valuable for debate preparation that only one person from the university got to spend time with him: then-UR President Richard L. Morrill.
“It was a low-key and private greeting,” Morrill recalled. “President Bush came from inside the Robins Center to where I was standing, and there we met. It was very casual but very pleasant.
“I had read about his one known connection to the university: He had come to the campus many years earlier to play in a Yale vs. Richmond baseball game.
“As we had our conversation, I pointed toward Pitt Field [now Robins Stadium]. ‘There’s where you visited us in the past,’ and so he looked over. You could tell he wasn’t recollecting, ‘I went 2-for-4 that day,’ but he was interested in seeing the field and craned his neck to get a better view.
“Perhaps he was thinking about the less-troubling times of his youth.”
Morrill recalled the disputes UR witnessed between the candidates’ political staffs.
“They disagreed about the candidates’ chairs, their color, how high they should be, their placement — the debate was a very scripted staff process in all dimensions,” he said.
Bush seemed to transcend a lot of that process, Morrill said.
“He didn’t appear to be as engaged as Bill Clinton was in the drama of campaigning. When he looked at his watch, I think he did reveal he might have been happier somewhere else. I think the populace had that impression, and polling started trending strongly toward Clinton.
“By contrast, you could see in Clinton the incredible political figure he is, the way he interacted, the body language, his warm smile, the way he focused on you.
“Bush was somewhat more reserved — pleasant and genial but a bit selfpossessed. You could see his credibility as a person, his knowledge, his intense intelligence. He had a balance in his point of view — a man to be respected.”
The debate’s impact on the university was critical for UR’s “self-identity, visibility, plausibility,” Morrill said. “It enabled students to see democracy up close.”
The university also was able to tap into “outstanding people” who surrounded Bush, he said, including former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who spoke at a UR commencement; and Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the top commander during the 1991 Gulf War who became a UR board member.
A year later, I got to talk briefly with Bush at a reception before his speech at the Richmond Forum. I told him of my connection with the UR debate. He smiled and said, “Oh, that was not a very pleasant experience for me.”
Susan Rekowski, a sports marketing consultant who describes herself as a “hardcore liberal Democrat forever,” also waited in line at the Forum that night to talk to Bush. They chatted briefly, and she came away impressed.
She recalls that, while she was excited, the man behind her was beside himself. “He was awestruck and shaking with excitement.”
When the man’s turn came, he shook Bush’s hand and stammered, “I’m proud to meet you. Today’s my birthday” — whereupon, Rekowski said, Bush instantly removed from his tie the clasp with the presidential seal on it, handed it over with a handshake and a pat on the back, and said, “Happy birthday.”
Rekowski said that during her 10 years on the Forum board, she talked with scores of famous people from a variety of fields, but of them all, George H.W. Bush stood out as the nicest.
“When he looked at his watch, I think he did reveal he might have been happier somewhere else. I think the populace had that impression, and polling started trending strongly toward Clinton.” Richard L. Morrill, former UR president, about George H.W. Bush
President George H.W. Bush looked at his watch during the Oct. 15, 1992, debate at the University of Richmond with Democrat Bill Clinton and independent Ross Perot (background).