Former congressman recalls Bush as statesman
CHESTERTOWN — Wayne Gilchrest, the Eastern Shore’s former congressman, has a picture of himself with recently deceased President George H.W. Bush at the White House taken as he was in the middle of his first successful bid for office.
Talking about the photo in an interview Monday, Dec. 10, led Gilchrest, a Republican who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1991 to 2009, to reflect not just on that meeting, but on Bush as a president, a moderate Republican and statesman and a man of character.
Bush died at the age of 94 in his Houston, Texas home Nov. 30. He served as president from 1989 to 1993, was vice president for eight years under Ronald Reagan before that and served as the head of the CIA for one year under President Gerald Ford. He also was a war hero, a United Nations envoy, head of the Republican National Committee and served in the U.S. House of Representatives for four years.
“We took for granted how congenial he was. You know we didn’t think anything of it,” Gilchrest said. “He was so easy to talk to. No pretense. No bombastic, vitriolic comments about anybody.”
Gilchrest was a Kent County High School teacher making his second bid for Congress in 1990 when he was asked to the White House to meet Bush. He said Bush had negotiated for a tax increase with Democrats that would notably result in an $8-a-month increase in Medicare taxes.
“And my reaction was that if that’s going to keep Medicare solvent and balance the federal budget that’s a good idea. So I was the only — apparently — Republican candidate in the United States that defended Bush’s position,” Gilchrest said.
His backing of the Medicare tax increase led to the unexpected White House invitation, a chat with Bush and a photo-op.
“And of course that was used in our campaign. And we got a lot of press out of it, good or bad, we just got a lot of press out of it,” said Gilchrest, who found himself the winner on election night in 1990.
In putting Bush’s time as president in historical perspective, Gilchrest spoke about how the world was in the ongoing saga that included the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain and by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
Gilchrest said that while Bush received criticism for not being strong enough, people need only look at how he steadfastly handled such trying and significant events. Gilchrest spoke about how strong a statesman Bush was throughout all of that.
“With his connection to world leaders, that was a sense of security,” he said. “He was doing all the right things.”
Gilchrest said that when seeing images of Iraqi firing squads lining up Kuwaitis, Bush knew exactly what to do. He said likewise when Operation Desert Storm ended abruptly, the president opted not to push on to Baghdad as U.S. pilots were reporting missions resulting in as they called it “a sea of slaughter.”
Back on the campaign trail in 1992 for a second term, Gilchrest found himself again in close contact with Bush, this time in a Secret Service car traveling from Aberdeen Proving Ground through Harford County.
“So we rode from Aberdeen Proving Ground up (U.S.) Route 40 that was lined with a lot of people. And he was waving to everybody. And we were able to chat, about my campaign, about his campaign and the other issues that were relevant at the time,” Gilchrest said.
A third such meeting came in Annapolis, when Bush was there with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. They also were joined by then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
“Yeah, he had a plan for the world,” Gilchrest said of Bush.
There were other trips to the White House with Gilchrest’s fellow Republicans. Gilchrest said presidential meetings with House members happened most frequently under Bush than any other president during his time as a congressman.
“And he would come down to the House on regular occasions,” Gilchrest said of Bush, noting that the president did not necessarily hit the House floor, but could be found in what is referred to as the “cloakroom,” where members could meet or grab a sandwich, at the time made by a woman who had worked there since the 1930s when she started with her father.
Gilchrest said Bush was approachable on environmental issues, important to the former congressman who now heads up programming at the Sassafras Environmental Education Center at Turner’s Creek. Gilchrest holds Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator, William K. Reilly, in high regard and spoke about how Bush was better positioned than President Bill Clinton to look at climate change.
Gilchrest called Bush the “quintessential moderate Republican.” He spoke about the passage of the Brady Bill under Bush imposing a federal five-day waiting period on firearm purchases and about a ban on the importation of assault rifles for recreational purposes.
While Gilchrest wanted to be cautious not to lionize Bush, whose presidency is not without criticism, for the former congressman, Bush maintained the line of distinguished presidents that people could look to for leadership.
“There’s something real — and it’s real — about character that’s based on courage and integrity and competence. You know, that’s the fertile soil that makes democracy work for sure,” Gilchrest said.
Then-congressman Wayne Gilchrest, left, meets with President George H.W. Bush in the White House while on the campaign trail in 1990.