Throughout this week we’ve been hearing dozens of stories about President George H.W. Bush. One of the most heard anecdotes is how he loved to write to people, especially if they wrote to him. I know this to be true because he wrote to me, twice.
When I typed a letter to him, he responded with a typed letter to me. When I handwrote to him he responded with a handwritten letter. The story behind the first letter is nearly as interesting as getting a letter from a former president.
I spent many years as a radio news reporter and anchor. Breaking into TV was not easy, but I finally landed a position at WCSH TV in Portland, Maine, not far from the Bush summer home in Kennebunkport. The very first assignment turned out to be memorable, even though it was not immediately apparent.
The assignment: Interview a retired man who sold muffins at a roadside stand in Kennebunk, Maine, just a couple of miles from what had been the summer White House during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, which I’d also covered as a radio reporter during Bush’s summer visits to Maine.
Heading to the assignment we felt pressured. How could we make a story about an elderly man and his muffin stand be interesting to the viewers? Little did we know that the man, Cliff Higgins, was a good friend of George H.W. Bush, and he was a true classic. Cliff had a colorful history as a conservative who fully supported his friend during the controversial Gulf War. We had no idea the gift that the assignment desk had given us until we met Cliff. His muffins were great, but his personality was far more tasty on camera.
Retired national TV talk show host Phil Donahue likely remembers Cliff, too. Donahue came to Kennebunkport during the presidency of George Bush 41 and hosted a show with pro-war and anti-war guests. The Gulf War was very controversial at the time. It was the first major military action since Vietnam, so many Americans had concerns about how it would be handled.
I’d seen that famous Donahue episode but did not realize the man I was about to interview was the World War II veteran who called the anti-war guests “yellow bellies” on national TV. My photographer and I were in for a memorable day.
Upon arriving at Cliff’s small home along a rural road in Kennebunk we learned of his friendship with George Bush. I assumed he was exaggerating about how friendly he was with the former president. After all, everyone who lived near Walker’s Point had a story or two about meeting George and Barbara Bush. They frequently went into town. With their Secret Service detail and the narrow streets around Dock Square, it was hard not to know when the Bushes were in town.
Cliff led us to a table in his house where he had three very large photo albums. He opened them up and there were dozens of photos of him with Mr. Bush, many of them were taken on Air Force 2 while George H.W. Bush was vice president.
After the photographer and I were done shooting mounds of video of Cliff working at his roadside muffin stand we returned to his house where I handed him my business card. My request was to have Mr. Bush sign the back of the card if he happened to see the former president.
The following week Cliff called and said, “I’ve got something for you.” So I drove to Kennebunk where Cliff handed me a brown envelope with a photo of George Bush on the rocks of Walker’s Point with his dog Ranger. The inscription read “Dennis Spellman, Best Wishes” and it was signed by George Bush.
I wrote to Cliff to thank him for the autographed photo. I also wrote to President Bush to thank him, too.
A few days later an envelope was in my mail and the upper left return address corner had only two words – George Bush. I’d never heard of someone thanking you for sending a thank you letter, but I’d never written to George Bush.
His note to me was handwritten. He told me that both of his sons would be running for governor of their respective states, and he was clearly looking forward to watching them rise in public service, something that would not have been possible while he was in the White House.
Mr. Bush also asked me to give his friend Cliff “a big abrazo” the next time I saw him. An abrazo is an embrace.
Many years later a Bush staffer who had become a friend of mine said abrazo was a term frequently used by the 41stpresident. Without seeing the letter the staffer said the word abrazo was proof that the letter was handwritten by Mr. Bush himself.
A few years later I wrote to Mr. Bush again, asking for an interview. I bypassed his staff and wrote directly to the former president, knowing that he did read his mail. This time I typed the letter because it was a formal request. Again, a few days later I received another letter from President Bush. This time his response was typed and it was marked “self-typed.” He declined my interview request, but it was done in the kindest way. The interview request was clearly a longshot that I never actually thought he’d grant. He had no reason to respond personally. He had staff to handle that function, but he did it on his own. It was who he was. A gentleman who wrote to those who took the time to write to him.
This week the nation is giving Mr. Bush a big abrazo. It’s been a long time coming, and much deserved.
Thank you, Mr. President, and this time you don’t have to write back, but if you do I’ll certainly be asking for an interview.