He was tall and stoic, I stood by in awed silence and watched the somber moment as President George Herbert Walker Bush laid a wreath in remembrance of the 39 Federal Law Enforcement Training Center officers killed in the line of duty.
The day was June 15, 1989 and it was mid-morning at the Center, just north of Brunswick, Georgia. The 41st president had traveled to the Center to announce a $1.2 billion anti-crime package, but before he took to the podium, he honored the fallen at the Center’s Peace Officers Memorial on the sprawling campus, which had been Naval Air Station Glynco from 1942 to 1974.
NBC political reporter Andrea Mitchell obstructed my full view of the president, who was about 10 feet away from me.
I was a radio news reporter at the time, and we were cautioned that there would no question and answer session after the wreath-laying, I felt lost momentarily. I even wondered what to do, why was I there. After all, I worked in an industry that lived on sound bites, yet there were none to be harvested until he made his way to the stage to give his speech.
My fears were allayed somewhat when I saw a press secretary passing out copies of No. 41’s speech to the press corps. That meant I thankfully, still had the opportunity to record his speech. With the WGIG AM & FM-issued Marantz recorder in tow, I plugged it into a sophisticated jack at the multbox and monitored my sound levels. Batteries – check. Cassette tape in – check. Needles bouncing to the cadence of his speech – check.
When I rushed back to the radio station, I was able to sift through the printed speech and select which soundbite would have the most impact while also telling the story to the audience in such a short span of time.
I was fortunate. After I completed my primary job for WGIG, I got to sell ABC Radio News “a piece of tape” – which we used to call soundbites – I called in the story to the Georgia Radio News Service and to United Press International as we were affiliates of all three organizations. That year, UPI named me Georgia Stringer of the Year.
According to the FLETC newsletter that chronicled the day, about 10,000 attendees looked on as Bush laid out his plan in front of cabinet officials, law enforcement agency heads, FLETC staff, trainees and Glynn County residents. It was the height of the crack cocaine epidemic sweeping the country at the time and Bush’s controversial proposal made it clear he was going to stick to his campaign promise of being tough on crime. Remember the Willie Horton campaign ad?
His plan called for doubling the mandatory sentence from 5 to 10 years for crimes involving semi-automatic weapons. He asked lawmakers to eliminate plea bargaining for federal firearms offenses and expand the death penalty to include terrorists and those who killed federal officers.
“In a country where criminals threaten to erode the very liberties that we hold so dear, you here at Glynco are domestic freedom fighters in the war on crime. And for this reason, you have a friend in the majestic Oval Office, and you have the gratitude and support of the American people,” states the newsletter.
While I had to turn to the internet to jog my memory of what Bush said that day, I will never forget the power and enormity from which he spoke that day as well as the respect that he garnered from simply walking by. All eyes of the nation would be watching this speech on national news tonight, I thought to myself.
I learned a lot that day – about myself, about the vast reach of government, about how a bill truly becomes a law and how the media makes a tremendous impact.
I was also awakened to the manner in which the world pays attention to what we do in the U.S.
And while he served only one term as president, the elder Bush pushed for and signed into law the Americans With Disabilities Act, an expansion of the Clean Air Act and worked to curb crime across America.
He will also be remembered for his words from his 1988 acceptance speech in which he encouraged citizens to strive for and create a “kinder and gentler nation,” something that needs to come back to the forefront of American living today.
George Herbert Walker Bush’s impact on our country and the world will not be forgotten. It’s also a memory I will keep forever.