I couldn’t find anyone locally planning to attend President George H.W. Bush’s funeral tomorrow in Washington, D.C., but I called Keith Eckel to try to find out.
He’s not going either, but, as usual, he added some fascinating historical perspective that led to this post.
Not sure how many people know this — I sure didn’t — but Eckel said he almost ended up as number two guy at the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the first President Bush.
Long a leader of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, Eckel served on President Ronald Reagan’s Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee for Trade.
First, a bit more back story.
In 1980, Eckel supported George H.W. Bush for president against Reagan in the Republican primaries.
“I did that because I thought Bush 41 was the best prepared to be president,” Eckel said.
After Reagan won the Republican nomination, Eckel became chairman of Farm Families for Reagan/Bush and met Richard Lyng, Reagan’s agriculture secretary in California and U.S. secretary of agriculture in his second presidential term.
Reagan named Eckel to his Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee for Trade where he met Clayton Yeutter, who was United States Trade Representative during Reagan’s second term.
When Bush won the presidency and succeeded Reagan, he appointed Yeutter as secretary of agriculture. Yeutter asked him to serve as his top deputy secretary, Eckel said.
Eckel said he thought about the offer for 10 days or so.
“I said no,” said Eckel, the former chairman of the board of the Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. “I always felt I was more effective from the outside than the inside.”
Though he turned down the chance to serve in Bush’s administration, Eckel’s admiration for the president never wavered.
“I saw in him an individual absolutely dedicated to public service,” Eckel said, noting Bush’s enlistment in the Navy right after high school. “From his first day, he was committed to serving the country.”
Bush’s pledge that he wouldn’t raise taxes cost him re-election when he cut a deal that raised taxes to reduce deficits, Eckel believes.
“He did it because he thought it was best for the country. He got things done,” Eckel said.
He touched on the close friendship that Bush developed with the man who defeated him in 1992, President Bill Clinton.
“That doesn’t happen today,” Eckel said. “I think Reagan set a great example for him when he (Bush) was vice president in the way he was able to work with Congress and especially Tip O’Neill (the Democratic House speaker). There was a different sense during that period of time, no question.
Eckel said he saw the photo of Bush’s service dog lying in front of his casket in Houston.
“That dog’s loyalty to him exemplified, to me, his (Bush’s) loyalty to the country,” Eckel said.