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On Sports

Smith hits home run with new book on the first President Bush

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Rochester Business Journal
December 12, 2014

The day after his inauguration as the 41st president of the United States in 1989, George H.W. Bush gathered his speechwriters. His predecessor, Ronald Reagan, aka the “Great Communicator,” had a fondness for quoting the Founding Fathers. But Bush made it perfectly clear that day in Washington, D.C., that he wanted to pepper his speeches with the wit and wisdom of a man best known for World Series titles and Mother Tongue defeats.

“I think the president knew that I had written several baseball books, so, at one point, he looked at me and said: ‘I’d rather quote Yogi Berra than Thomas Jefferson,’” recalled Caledonia native and University of Rochester senior lecturer Curt Smith. “That was very fine with me, until I found out, if anything, that he knew more Berra-isms than I did, which was a blow to the ego, but certainly made writing for him easier than it otherwise might have.

“The president was so well-versed in Berra-isms that if I didn’t insert one, he might take it upon himself to ad lib one during the course of a speech. He knew the full Yogi regalia, right down to my favorite—‘You should always go to other people’s funerals because if you don’t, they won’t come to yours.’”

Berra once advised that when you come to the fork in the road, you should take it. Well, that day in the White House a quarter century ago, Smith heeded the New York Yankee’s sage counsel and took it. And after that, to invoke another Berra-ism, it was déjà vu all over again. Smith would go on to write more speeches for Bush 41 than anyone. The orations included the “Just War” address delivered before the start of the first Gulf War, a eulogy of Reagan and a speech marking the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

As we learn in Smith’s recently published book, “George H.W. Bush: Character at the Core,” baseball has been one of the former president’s lifelong passions and influences. Bush, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday, fell in love with the game at an early age, and as a self-described “good field, poor hitting first baseman” would captain Yale University to consecutive College World Series appearances.

Lou Gehrig was his first baseball idol and remains his hero all these decades later. Smith said it’s not surprising that Bush would choose the man known as the “Iron Horse” over the more flamboyant and famous Babe Ruth.

“I think his choice was telling because there was so much about Gehrig that 41 could relate to and admire,” Smith said. “Unlike the boisterous, larger-than-life Ruth, Gehrig was not an exhibitionist. He was very private, understated, modest. Like the president, Gehrig had a very strong mother who had a great influence on him. Both men believed in playing by the rules, not doing anything underhanded. I think Gehrig and Bush are people we’ve come to admire and appreciate even more with each passing year.”

That said, the central baseball figure in Bush’s life was Ted Williams. The president first met the man regarded as the greatest hitter in history at an aviation training school in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 1943. At age 19, Bush was schooled by Williams and wound up becoming the youngest bomber pilot in U.S. Navy history. The two formed a friendship that would remain strong right up to Williams’ death in 2002.

In one of the book’s most fascinating chapters, we learn how Teddy Ballgame came through in the clutch and saved Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign. Bush opened his journey to the White House with a loss to Midwesterner Bob Dole in the Iowa Republican caucus. No one was overly concerned about that defeat because the campaign was moving to New Hampshire for the first primary, and Bush, a Massachusetts native, figured to bounce back nicely behind the support of his fellow New Englanders. But, with less than a week to go, Bush found himself trailing Dole in the polls. An upset loss on home turf would have been the death knell for Bush’s White House aspirations.

Unbeknownst to Bush, Williams took it upon himself to fly his private plane from Florida to New Hampshire to do some stomping for his old friend. Smith tells how, in an out-of-character moment, Bush scolded an aide just as the candidate was about to take the stage at a rally. At that very instant, Bush heard a familiar, booming voice. “Anything wrong, Mr. Vice President?” Upon seeing Williams, Bush said, “Not anymore,” with a Cheshire-cat grin.

During the next several days, Williams drew enormous crowds, while encouraging voters to elect his friend. Bush easily won the primary, and was unstoppable thereafter. “I asked John Sununu, who at the time was governor of New Hampshire and Bush’s campaign manager, what turned the tide in New Hampshire,” Smith said. “And, without batting an eyelash, he answered: ‘The Kid,’ Ted Williams. Without Williams, it’s very possible Bush would not have become president.”

Because this is a sports column, I’ve obviously focused on that aspect of Bush’s life. The book, of course, delves into much more as Smith provides an intimate portrait of a man he came to know and admire. You’ll also read in-depth narratives about the invasion of Panama, the first Gulf War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain. And we are given behind-the-scenes looks at the dynamics of the 1988 and 1992 presidential elections as well as Bush’s relationship with his wife, Barbara, and significant historical figures.

The book, like many of Bush’s speeches, also is chock-full of delectable Berra-isms. As Yogi once opined, “You can observe an awful lot by watching.” Smith clearly observed an awful lot while working for President No. 41. The result is a fascinating look at a man who has lived an extraordinary American life.

Scott Pitoniak is a best-selling author, nationally honored columnist, daily radio talk show co-host and television correspondent. You can listen to him Monday-Friday from 3-7 on 95.7 FM, AM 950 or, and watch him on WROC-TV Sunday mornings at 10:30 on “Inside the Buffalo Blitz” or after games.

12/12/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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