During this week, as we all join in the natural reflection of the character, conviction, and contributions of our 41stPresident, George Herbert Walker Bush, I was reminded of the time when I had the honor of meeting that great man.
It was the spring of 1992. He was the president of the United States running for reelection and I was the mayor of Compton running for Congress. Suddenly, something extraordinary happened that brought us together: April 29, 1992—the LA Riots following the not guilty verdict of the LAPD police officers caught on video beating Rodney King. In a flash, LA and Compton were overcome with fires, looting, gunfire, and violence. As an African American, I was as angry as those out rioting in the streets. But, as an elected official, as the political leader of Compton, my focus was on restoring order and saving our city from destruction.
On the third day of the riots, I hopped in front of a mobile CNN crew broadcasting from the streets of Compton and demanded, “Governor Wilson, send in the National Guard now before the whole damn town burns to the ground!” Fortunately, Pete Wilson heard the broadcast, sent in the National Guard, and order was restored. However, those few days of chaos had caused about $100 million dollars of damage to our city. In a couple of days, the Governor was with me in Compton touring the riot torn area. He promised to do all he could to help with federal emergency funds, but said to me, “First, there is someone I want you to meet that will help your cause.”
The next day I was at the Governor’s LA office and in walked the 41stPresident of the United States—George H.W. Bush. “This is who I wanted you to meet,” said Pete Wilson. My eyes widened, my back stiffened, and my heart beat faster as President Bush walked toward me matter-of-factly and extended his hand. I shook his hand and said, “Hello, Mr. President.” He replied, “Hello, Mr. Mayor. I heard you’ve had some real damage in your city.” “Yes, sir. It’s the worst property damage the city has ever seen and, well, we really need those FEMA dollars right away to start the rebuild,” I said.
President Bush reared his head back slightly and I detected a subtle smile. “Mayor Tucker, let me tell you a story. Before my career in politics, before my life in business, I served in the Navy in World War II. It was during that time that Barbara and I lived in Compton.” “You lived in Compton!” I replied with great surprise, pointing at him. “Yes, that’s right. Right there on Santa Fe, just north of Alondra. It was military housing then. Our time in Compton was one of the happiest times in our lives,” he said, his wry smile now fully visible. “Mayor Tucker, Compton will have its rebuild money. Now let’s take a photo.”
The president, the governor, and I lined up for some photos. Little did I know that their photographer had snapped some candid shots of us while we were talking earlier. The next day a photo the President and me grace the papers and, in many ways, that was the turning point in my congressional campaign. I went on to become the only African American to ever to be elected from Compton to the U.S. Congress. Unfortunately, as we all now know, President George H.W. Bush did not win his reelection. However, that day in April, 1992, he won my heart. I met much more than a man who was white, a republican, and the president of our country. I met a man who was approachable, humble, and friendly. Though our conversation was fairly short, the impression he made on me would run long.
Once I learned of President Bush’s connection to Compton, as mayor I tried to have a memorial built where he and his family once lived. I never got the political support to do it. But, after all these years, a memorial does stand in my heart—one to the man who exuded grace and honor. A man who could walk with kings, but never lose the common touch. Job well done, President Bush! May your life and legacy continue to remind us all that it’s all about being respectful to all men and finding common connections instead of focusing on and exploiting our differences.