De­bate at UR

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Randy Fitzger­ald is the for­mer di­rec­tor of pub­lic re­la­tions for the Uni­ver­sity of Rich­mond and a for­mer free­lance colum­nist for the Rich­mond Times-Dis­patch and The Rich­mond News Leader.

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

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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).

Randy Fitzger­ald

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