Lost in the mist surrounding the passing last week of former President George H.W. Bush is the name of I. Robert Goodman. All that Goodman did was change Bush’s image nearly four decades ago so that he could run for president and not have people call him a nasty word.
Goodman, who died last July at age 90, was an advertising executive and political consultant who worked for years out of some rustic offices at Falls and Old Court roads. He wasn’t particular about politics, so long as he liked you personally. Hell, he represented everybody on the spectrum from Adlai Stevenson to Spiro T. Agnew.
Goodman loved Bush. Whenever mentioning his name, he called Bush a hero for his military service during World War II. And he’d tell the story of the first time the two of them sat down to talk business in 1980, and how Goodman asked him about a painful Newsweek story about Bush headlined, “The Wimp Factor.”
What was that all about? Bush was the guy who signed up for the war the day he turned 18. He was the youngest fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy. And Newsweek – which had a major circulation and big influence back then – was calling him a wimp?
That kind of talk was ruining Bush as he ran for president in the Republican primaries that year. His poll numbers were abysmal.
Goodman asked Bush about his wartime service. Not a big deal, the modest, self-effacing Bush said. Well, he did fly 50-some combat missions. And then he muttered something about his plane getting shot down over the Pacific, and the dramatic rescue that followed.
Right away, Goodman asked if there might be film footage somewhere lost in the maze of military archives. As it turned out there was, and it was Goodman who found it. You can still see the video. There’s the young Bush, getting fished out of the Pacific. There he is, drenched and trembling, staggering across the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.
Goodman turned that film into 30-second political ads. They didn’t win Bush the presidency that year – he settled for coming in second and serving as vice president under Ronald Reagan — but he won the big prize eight years later.
There was no more talk of any “Wimp Factor” after that, thanks to Goodman.
Now, there was a new image of Bush, a man whose personal modesty and sense of integrity might have covered the fact that he actually was a tough guy, and certainly no wimp, when the country called on him.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been re-issued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.