But the decision came down from the pollsters and strategists who were running the campaign. Bush’s speechwriters and the surrogates campaigning for him were not to touch on the war, or make reference to his service as the youngest Navy pilot of his generation, on the grounds that such loose talk could only remind voters that he was 68 and Bill Clinton wasn’t. The focus groups had rendered their judgment, and there was no point arguing: this was a “change election” (they talked that way back then, too) and the country wanted a fresh face, young blood. We did what we were told, but none of us liked it. It struck me as simultaneously an act of ingratitude to our betters and a squeamish concession to the cult of youth that the boomers had introduced into the country and even now won’t die.
As it happened, Bush never liked to talk about the war anyway, especially not in public. An accurate account of his service—you can look up the details—would sound like bragging. Also, mentions of the war and the men who fought it tended to choke him up. The month before I went to work for him the country had marked the fiftieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor. The speechwriters turned out a set of speeches steeped in encomiums to the Greatest Generation—to Bush’s generation. The speech drafts, a friend told me later, came back from the Oval Office with whole sections crossed out. Anything purple, anything wistful or sentimental, was gone. “Not gonna make me cry!” Bush told one of my colleagues, in mock anguish. In the event, when it came time to deliver the speeches, he puddled up anyway.