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Joseph Sabino Mistick

Joseph Sabino Mistick: Bush was good winner, good loser

| Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018, 7:03 p.m.
Joe Mistick shakes hands with President George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Joe Mistick shakes hands with President George H.W. Bush in 1992.

When President George H.W. Bush arrived in Pittsburgh in 1992, it was one of those part-government and part-politics visits. Facing re-election and suffering criticism that his administration cared more about foreign policy than the plight of our cities, Bush had launched an urban initiative that brought him to the Hill District.

Under normal circumstances, Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff would have greeted the president, but the political nature and timing of his visit complicated things. The mayor was a Democratic Party official and strong supporter of Bill Clinton, which meant that the optics were not good for a Bush-Masloff handshake.

The president and the mayor were both political pros and understood this. So it fell to me, as the mayor’s chief of staff, to greet the president. It was heady stuff for me.

Just a year before, Bush had seemed invincible, having planned and won the Gulf War in short order. Pittsburgh, like other cities across the land, hosted a military parade in celebration, and the flag-waving crowd that lined Fifth Avenue was solidly in the president’s corner — for the moment. But political fortunes can turn very quickly.

Until you have been part of a presidential visit, it is hard to imagine the whirlwind efficiency of the whole thing. Our small group of city officials awaited the president in an anteroom behind the packed auditorium where he would speak.

When the door burst open with Secret Service agents in the lead, the president immediately worked the room, greeting some of us by our first names. It took a moment to realize that was simply good presidential staff work.

“Tell Sophie she’s doing a great job, Joe,” he said, looking me straight in the eye. Then, he worked the rest of the room quickly and headed for the door to the main hall.

But just before the door opened, he turned to me and, in a clear voice that traveled across the room, said, “Hey, Joe, I see on CNN that Sophie’s campaigning with Clinton in the Strip District. Make sure she knows that I’m not the kind of guy that will hold that against her after I win this thing.”

Then, he walked into the main hall, to meet the crowd.

Sometimes I remember that he finished with a wink and a smile, but other times I am not so sure. Regardless, being targeted for a little presidential political pressure was a thrill. And when I told the mayor, she chuckled.

They both knew the game. They fought tough partisan battles, based upon real policy differences, and they stayed true to their beliefs once elected. But they governed

That would be a phenomenon these days. Presidents never break with their base, and mayors are afraid to lead, even for the good of the city, for fear of offending some small group.

George H.W. Bush was not a perfect man. He campaigned hard, using tough political tactics and the toughest operatives, even throwing a few sharp elbows himself.

But he knew how to be a good winner. And he knew how to be a good loser. And he always tried to do the right thing when he got the chance.

Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer. Reach him at misticklaw@gmail.com.

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