My Date with Destiny
The late Elsie Hillman, Grande Dame of the GOP and former National Republican Committee Woman, called me early one summer morning, a few weeks before the republican national committee convention in 1988.
Vice President George H.W. Bush was the presumptive nominee and a close personal friend of Henry and Elsie Hillman. Elsie explained that she and Drew Lewis, former Republican National Committeeman for Pennsylvania, U.S. Secretary of Transportation and then president of the Union Pacific Railroad, had been appointed by the vice president to co-chair a committee to recommend someone to be George Bush’s running mate in the November presidential election. She asked if I would like to be on that committee. I could hardly contain my enthusiasm. I was already a delegate for the convention in New Orleans and now I would have an opportunity to participate in behind-the-scenes political history. I accepted Elsie’s invitation and I was ecstatic.
As president of a railroad, Drew Lewis had access to a private rail car. In fact, he had two cars. He and Elsie decided that in order to keep our interviews of potential VP candidates confidential, we should conduct the committee’s meetings on Drew’s private train cars at the New Orleans train station.
We began two days of interviews on Monday prior to the beginning of the convention on Thursday evening. The plan was to be finished by Wednesday and to be ready to meet with the vice president and give him our recommendation at 3 p.m. on Thursday. A week before we were to meet, we had received a thick packet of information about each of the six potential candidates chosen by the vice president and his advisors and fully vetted by the FBI. Interviews were scheduled for two hours with a 30-minute committee discussion before and after each interview. We planned three interviews per day and an evening dinner/discussion Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday we would choose three finalists, listed by our priority, to recommend to the vice president at 3 p.m. on Thursday and be prepared to discuss our recommendations.
I was absolutely thrilled and fascinated with the entire process. I had never been involved at this level of politics and I absorbed every discussion, argument, idea and anecdote our group could produce. Every night I laid awake wishing my buddies from college could “see me now!”
I will fast forward past the long and tedious interviews. I’ll just say that I learned more about governance, politics and politicians in that intense two days than I could have in a year of formal political science education. Thursday finally arrived, and I could not have been more excited. We were meeting Vice President Bush at 3 p.m. to recommend: 1. Jack Kemp, 2. Pete Domenici and 3. Richard Thornburgh. If you Google each of those distinguished and accomplished gentlemen, perhaps you will appreciate why they were our choices and even agree that we had made good selections.
George Bush landed at 1 p.m. Thursday in New Orleans (two hours before our scheduled meeting). He had an impromptu press conference at the airport at which he announced that his choice for his running mate was Dan Quayle, U.S. Senator from Indiana. The hot air balloon which had carried me to the heights of imagined political influence and power… crashed and burned. I had never heard of Dan Quayle. My dreams of political influence had received an almost mortal blow.
Several years later I related this story to both the late George H. W. Bush and to Dan Quayle. President Bush said, “Things like that happen all the time in politics, Jim.” Later, when I ran for office, I would learn the truth of his words. Dan Quayle said he was glad that President Bush had not met with our committee. That same evening, in his campaign speech for president, Dan Quayle made a very clever comment: “If Al Gore invented the Internet, I invented spell check.” (Maybe his best line ever.)