Politics & Government

How SC helped launch ‘nice guy’ Bush to the White House

As former President George H.W. Bush is mourned with pomp and circumstance at a national memorial service in Washington on Wednesday, South Carolinians remember a war hero and “statesman” who was “a genuinely nice guy.”

Bush’s passing Friday closed a chapter of S.C. political history.

Bush’s 1988 presidential election was engineered by a South Carolinian — the late Lee Atwater.

Bush and his wife Barbara, who graduated from Charleston’s Ashley Hall school, also had a longtime friendship with the father of the modern S.C. Republican Party — the late Carroll Campbell.

The 41st president also was one of the first beneficiaries — and victims — of the Palmetto State’s first-in-the-South presidential primary.

When Bush ran for president for the first time in 1980, he lost the first-ever GOP presidential primary in South Carolina, finishing with just 15 percent of the vote, trailing former California Gov. Ronald Reagan and former Texas Gov. John Connally.

After eight years as vice president under Reagan, Bush prevailed in the same primary in 1988, beating U.S. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas by 27 percentage points. That win was in no small part due to the support of Campbell, fresh off his own 1986 election win. Bush went on, ultimately, to win the presidency.

“(Campbell) got a lot of people to change parties, so when he came out for Bush, that was all she wrote,” said S.C. political analyst Neal Thigpen. “Campbell had the only statewide Republican organization.”

Mike Campbell remembers his father being “extremely close” with both Bushes, dating to his father’s time in Congress.

After the elder Campbell became S.C. governor in 1986, Bush became a frequent visitor to the Governor’s Mansion, even after he left the White House in 1993. Likewise, the Campbells often would go to visit the Bushes at their Kennebunkport compound in Maine.

Propelled SC to the GOP

In 1989, Bush addressed the S.C. General Assembly, saying he came in the “spirit of bipartisanship.”

“I’ve got to,” the Republican said to the then-Democratic-controlled S.C. Legislature. “You’ve got us outnumbered.”

He then went on to deliver a warm address, flattering the state. It was past time for the federal government to “catch up with South Carolina”, adopting a balanced budget amendment, for example.

Bush’s 1989 visit came at the time of shifting tides in S.C. politics as Republicans on the national stage kept intersecting with the state, says Bob McAlister, a former chief of staff to Gov. Campbell.

Bush and Campbell both recently had been elected to the offices of chief executive, one of the nation and one of the state. Atwater, a political consultant from Aiken and former Ronald Reagan aide, had helped both get elected, helping launch the infamous Willie Horton ad for Bush.

Campbell and Bush met in the ’70s when Bush was chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Campbell ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor.

The closeness between Bush and Campbell, friends who “came along in politics together,” helped propel the state into a steady GOP takeover of the state’s legislative and congressional offices, McAlister said.

South Carolina also had a friend and ally in the White House, said Warren Tompkins, a former Campbell aide.

That helped the state Republican Party build support through use of the national party’s political operations.

‘You do what you have to do’

Mike Campbell said there was “probably no one other than Lee Atwater in the state ... that Bush was closer to” than his father.

“One thing about President Bush is that he has a very easy manner,” the younger Campbell said. “He’s a genteel, grandfatherly type.”

McAlister agreed.

“He was really comfortable in his own skin, and that made everyone else around him comfortable,” McAlister.

While visiting the Campbells, McAlister recalled the Secret Service escorting the president and the governor to Williams-Brice Stadium for a jog.

“When they got back, Gov. Campbell looked like hell,” McAlister said. “He was competitive enough that he was not going to let the president beat him, but he was out of shape enough that he was tired when he got back.”

The close relationship between Bush and Campbell benefited the state, when then-Gov. Campbell oversaw the state’s response to Hurricane Hugo.

Campbell ordered interstate lanes reversed to aid evacuations from the coast. Mike Campbell recalls his father getting an angry phone call from an undersecretary in the U.S. Transportation Department, telling him he didn’t have the authority to reverse lanes.

“My dad got off the phone with him and called the president,” Mike Campbell said. “And President Bush told him, ‘You do what you have to do.’...

“That’s something the general public doesn’t often hear about, but that was really the last time a governor in South Carolina and a president had that kind of relationship.”

Personal connection

Bush also will be remembered for the role he played as a “statesman,” overseeing the peaceful end of the Cold War and ousting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, politicos who worked with him say.

He’s the “most unassuming politician I’ve ever been around,” Tompkins said, “a genuinely nice guy.”

Mike Campbell says Bush was the only president to stay overnight at the Governor’s Mansion. There, young Campbell and Bush got caught by the Secret Service eating pork rinds.

Campbell also remembers when Bush, clad in coat and tie, just had to try out Gov. Campbell’s brand new Nordic Track exercise machine. Slipping his feet into the sliders, the president nearly did a split before his aides called him off of the machine, Campbell said.

Bush visited the state several times, including when his oldest son, George W. Bush, was running for president in 2000.

“We have had no more qualified individual as president, probably in American history,” Mike Campbell said, citing Bush’s time in Congress, as CIA director, de facto ambassador to China and chairman of the Republican National Committee, as well as vice president and president.

“He was just a sweet man,” Campbell added. “He loved his family, loved his friends and loved his country.”

Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.
Jamie Self is a projects reporter writing about health care, education, criminal justice and more. An alum of The State’s politics and State House team, Jamie has won several first place awards for education and government beat reporting and has contributed to wins for political and public service journalism. @jamiemself