Principle over Politics? The Domestic Policy of the George H. W. Bush Presidency

By Richard Himelfarb; Rosanna Perotti | Go to book overview

Discussant: Frank G. Bowe

I’m here today because before I became a university professor I was making an honest living. I was a head of the disability lobby, and I want to give you a perspective from the point of view of our special interest group.

And it goes back to the early days of the Reagan administration. For those of us in the disability rights movement, Reagan was a very frightening president. It was a very nerve-wracking time for us. You might know this because President Reagan did have a hearing loss in one ear, but that did not by any means make him knowledgeable or sensitive to disability issues. He came into Washington and immediately suggested repealing everything that we had all worked for, for many, many years. I remember going to the Hill, Capitol Hill, and actually seeing a proposal that special education be wiped out and that all of the accessibility gains that we had achieved, and the 1973 law that Dr. Berkowitz talked about eliminated overnight. A very frightening time. And I found it especially frightening because I could not work with President Reagan. Many of us could not work with him. I’ll give you an example.

Two weeks after President Reagan became president in his first term—this was in February of 1981—I was in the White House, in the Oval Office, with President Reagan. And I thought to myself, all right, here’s an opportunity. This is the beginning of a four-year term, maybe the beginning of an eight-year term, and so let me get this thing going on the right foot. And I will make some policy suggestions and we’ll get going on this. And so, as the meeting ended in the Oval Office, the president and I were walking together out the door of the Oval Office. And I thought, here’s my chance! This is it! So I said, “Mr. President,” and he looked at me and he said, “You know, Frank, today is the thirty-first anniversary of my thirty-ninth birthday.” And as soon as he said that, we were immediately off of any possibility of any substantive discussion of anything. And that was an example of how very hard it was to work with this man.

So we were faced here with an administration that really wasn’t listening, a president I really had a hard time working with, and all of these proposals that everything that we cared about be canceled. And at that time, President Reagan appointed Vice President Bush to head the Task Force on Regulatory Relief, which to us meant killing all of the gains that we had made. It suddenly became desperately important that we talk with Vice President Bush. And we did. We had a series of meetings with him over a period of years, and we learned something about this man. First of all, he listens, he absolutely listens. He listens, he learns. He is a reasonable person. He understands policy, he understands people, and he was someone we could talk to. And over a period of years he learned what our issues were, what our concerns were.

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