Brilliant. Gentle. Kind.
Former Long Beach State professor Craig R. Smith had no trouble coming up with three words to describe the 41st president, George H.W. Bush, who died Friday night.
Smith was Bush’s only speechwriter from 1978 to 1980, and returned during the Bush presidency. It was Smith who wrote the speech called “A Different Kind of President” in which Bush used the phrase, “kinder, gentler nation” for the first time.
“One thing a speechwriter likes to do is give a persistent persona,” Smith said. “That was a battle with the people who surrounded President Bush, like (adviser) Lee Atwater. They wanted to toughen him up, but there were those of us who wanted to see the gentler side. We would go back and forth.”
One example was Bush’s nomination acceptance speech in 1988. Smith helped write that speech with Peggy Noonan, which contains both the famous “thousand points of lights” reference and the infamous “read-my-lips-no-new-taxes” declaration (not Smith’s doing — Vic Gold wrote that).
“Speeches really can change history,” Smith said. “If you know what you’re doing, they can really make a difference.”
Smith’s first meeting with Bush was in January 1978. Smith was teaching at the University of Alabama-Birmingham at the time and Bush was in Birmingham to give a fundraising speech. Afterward, Smith was asked if he would consider being a speechwriter for the former head of the CIA. Smith accepted.
“The first speech I wrote for Bush was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1978,” he said. “I thought it went well and I asked Mrs. Bush for her opinion. She put her hand on my hand, and said ‘it’s not important what I think, it’s important what you think.’”
Smith, who went on to write speeches for Bush in 1988 and 1992, says the former president was skilled at delivering good speeches without a lot of preparation, but when he prepared, his delivery became great.
“He’s always been my favorite client to this day,” Smith told students at Gustavus Adolphus College. “He was just so bright and such a gentleman and so smart and was interactive in the writing process.”
Smith, 73, is retired from teaching at Long Beach State although he still does guest lectures. He is the founder and former president of the Freedom of Expression Foundation and is the Director Emeritus of the Center for First Amendment Studies, located at Long Beach State.
Not many people get one-on-one time with a president, but Smith fondly remembers a snowy day in Wisconsin when he was alone with Bush.
“We were at Beloit College in 1978 and he was going to give a speech on his experiences in China as ambassador,” Smith said. “Mr. Bush asked if I’d like to go for a walk in the snow. He was talking about kids and I talked about being a professor. People usually treat speechwriters as hired help. But at that moment, he treated me like a son. I’ll never forget that moment.”