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Buffalonians recall George H.W. Bush as the most personable of presidents

George C. Robinson remembered George H.W. Bush as the president who let Secret Service agents enjoy Christmas.

Retired Rep. John J. LaFalce, a Democrat, worked with six presidents over 28 years – and recalled Bush, a Republican, as his favorite.

And longtime Buffalo businessman and Republican fundraiser Anthony H. Gioia still cherishes the handwritten notes that Bush was famous for writing to everyone who touched him.

Together, the former Secret Service agent, the retired Democratic congressman and the still-active Republican power player – Buffalo natives all – recalled Bush just as so many others have since his death on Nov. 30: as a remarkably personable president, one who changed the larger world while making their own a little bit better.

"He would take a personal interest in our careers and our families," said Robinson, a retired Secret Service agent who served in the White House when Bush was president between 1989 and 1993. "Both he and Mrs. Bush were wonderful."

As the nation paid tribute to its 41st president over the past week, all three men looked back fondly on memories forged more than a quarter century ago.

The Secret Service agent

Christmas isn't always much of a holiday for Secret Service agents and other key staffers assigned to the White House, given that recent presidents have often spent the holiday at a Texas ranch or a beachfront home in Hawaii or an estate in Palm Beach, Fla.

George H.W. Bush and his wife never did such a thing, Robinson recalled.

"They made it a point to stay in Washington or Camp David so we could all spend the holiday with our families," Robinson said.

That proved to be one of many small gestures that endeared Bush to Robinson, whose tour of duty in the Bush White House highlighted the career he built in federal law enforcement after growing up in the Langfield Housing Project on Buffalo's East Side and graduating from Canisius College.

FOR SECRET SERVICE AGENT, HISTORY IS EVERYDAY THING

Robinson will never forget what Bush did on a visit to Budapest in 1989. Seeing that the president was about to deliver a speech in a driving rainstorm, Robinson handed him the cheap travel raincoat the Secret Service agent always carried with him.

The president put it on – only to later give it to a woman in the front row who appeared to be chilled and soaked to the bone.

When Bush found out he had given away his Secret Service agent's raincoat, the president sent him a personal check to cover its cost, a mere $42.50.

Robinson still cherishes that check.

"I don't know anybody who has seen a check from the president, so I wasn't going to cash it," he said.

That's just one of many memories Bush made for Robinson. He recalls riding in Bush's golf cart with his son George W. Bush and hearing Barbara Bush calling out to "the Georges." He recalls Bush welcoming him with friendly greetings when they would see each other years later in Texas, where Robinson later worked for both the Secret Service and the Transportation Security Administration.

Most infamously of all, Robinson recalls being at Bush's side when the president vomited and then collapsed at a state dinner hosted by the Japanese prime minister in Tokyo in 1992.

Groggily regaining consciousness, Bush responded with characteristic good humor.

"Roll me under the table and let me stay there," he said.

The congressman

LaFalce marked Bush's passing with a Facebook post that may have surprised the former congressman's fellow Democrats.

"For many, many reasons, George Herbert Walker Bush was the President I liked and respected the most," LaFalce wrote.

He called Bush "a very good, unaffected, humble, decent man ... a man who was very effective, with great achievements, but did not gloat ... a man with whom it was an honor to both work and socialize."

The former congressman from the Town of Tonawanda did plenty of both, despite personal and political differences with the 41st president.

Then-Rep. John J. LaFalce speaks with President George H.W. Bush on a flight to Rochester in the early 1990s.

LaFalce sprung from blue-collar roots and remains to this day a New Deal Democrat. Bush, the son of a senator, aimed for a "kinder, gentler" conservatism that nevertheless didn't exactly focus first and foremost on the working man.

Yet LaFalce and Bush worked together on issues ranging from trade to the environment to the Americans with Disabilities Act. And in the process, the congressman from metro Buffalo came to feel a special affinity both for what Bush accomplished and how he carried himself.

LaFalce lauded Bush for deftly navigating the end of the Cold War and aiding the reunification of Germany, along with a host of domestic accomplishments.

Bush was able to achieve so much because he was so personable and so willing to work with members of Congress, LaFalce said.

How willing?

"He would come over and work out in the House gym rather than the White House gym," LaFalce recalled. "I remember walking out of there and seeing him and saying: 'Hello, Mr. President.' "

LaFalce had plenty of chances to say the same thing at the White House, where Bush invited him to several bill signings and state dinners as well as a more intimate gathering that ended with a tour of the president's private quarters.

There, LaFalce couldn't help but notice that he and the patrician president had something in common: They both had humidifiers in their bedrooms. And there, Bush noted that the White House staff wouldn't let him do much of anything in the kitchen, save for putting bread in the toaster in the morning.

"He never lorded it over you that he was president," LaFalce said.

The GOP power player

Gioia, then the president of the pasta company that bore his family name, met Bush when he traveled to Buffalo for a Republican fundraiser when he was beginning his first race for the presidency in 1979.

"I sat next to him and just had a lovely chat," Gioia recalled. "He was so down to earth and so unpretentious. And a few days later, I received this beautiful handwritten note."

Bush used handwritten notes as political currency, building connections in that old-fashioned, personal way.

Gioia got several of those notes over the years, but that's not all Bush did to win over Gioia, perhaps the top Buffalo-area fundraiser for Republicans in the past several decades.

Gioia met with Bush when he served as Ronald Reagan's vice president, backed Bush's 1988 bid for the presidency and later met with him as Bush's son ran for president in 2000. Gioia would go on to be one of George W. Bush's top fundraisers and to serve as ambassador to Malta.

The elder Bush traveled to Buffalo during his son's campaign in 2000, and Gioia once again got to witness his personal charm, this time at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.

"He was just a gracious, gracious man," Gioia said. "I asked him to come down to Roswell Park, and he did, and he toured Roswell and met with the patients and staff."

Bush also turned on the charm at a fundraising party at Gioia's home, and Gioia was by no means the only one to notice.

"My mother went crazy" upon meeting the 41st president, Gioia recalled.

 

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