The Slatest

George H.W. Bush’s Most Famous Out-of-Touch Gaffe Probably Didn’t Really Happen

George H W Bush points to the crowd. Someone wearing a military uniform wheels his chair behind him.
The late former President George H.W. Bush on February 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas.
Al Bello/Getty Images

When George H.W. Bush, who died Friday at the age of 94, lost his re-election bid against Bill Clinton in 1992, many of his critics blamed the president’s handling of economic issues. He inherited a large budget deficit from the Reagan years, but during the the GOP nominating convention in 1988, he famously promised “no new taxes.” When, two years later, his budget deal included a raise on taxes for the wealthy to cope with deepening deficits, the conservative wing of his party turned on him. And when the economy succumbed to a recession, much of the rest of the country turned on him, and his popularity plummeted. Some accused him of neglecting domestic issues in order to focus on world affairs, but possibly the most damaging accusation at a time of economic hardship was that Bush couldn’t understand the concerns of ordinary Americans.

As Tim Naftali wrote in Slate, this impression could be seen in the public uproar over an incident at a checkout counter at a grocer’s convention in 1992, described this way by the New York Times at the time:

He signed his name on an electronic pad used to detect check forgeries.

“If some guy came in and spelled George Bush differently, could you catch it?” the President asked. “Yes,” he was told, and he shook his head in wonder.

Then he grabbed a quart of milk, a light bulb and a bag of candy and ran them over an electronic scanner. The look of wonder flickered across his face again as he saw the item and price registered on the cash register screen.

The Times described the scene as an illustration of how Bush “is having trouble presenting himself to the electorate as a man in touch with middle-class life.” In Friday’s obituary, the Times again referenced the incident as one critics pointed to to cast him as “out of touch with ordinary Americans,” with the parenthetical that Bush “later insisted he had not been surprised.”

The incident has become the mockable out-of-touch moment to which all other out-of-touch moments are compared: Mitt Romney’s offer to bet Rick Perry $10,000 over healthcare reform at a debate; Rudy Giuliani’s guess that a gallon of milk costs $1.50; and Trump’s assertion you need an ID to buy groceries.

But according to Snopes, the writer of the 1992 article, Andrew Rosenthal, had not been at the convention but instead based his description on a pool report by a journalist from the Houston Chronicle. That reporter wrote that Bush had “a look of wonder” on his face but did not include the incident in the dispatch he ultimately wrote.

Soon after the incident, the Associated Press reported that the scanner’s manufacturer defended the president and said the scanner Bush examined was not a typical grocery model and had the new ability to weigh produce and read torn labels.

The Times defended its original article by reviewing a video of the event and claiming it showed that while he was shown new and old scanners, he was clearly impressed by the old ones as well, according to Snopes. It’s not abundantly clear from the video, and other publications disagreed with the paper’s interpretation of the incident.

But even if the infamous grocery scanner incident is false, Bush’s critics wouldn’t have had to look far for material to depict him as an out-of-touch elite. While all presidents have people shop and cook and otherwise wait on them, and most come from privileged backgrounds, Bush was born into a particularly wealthy family. George H.W. Bush’s father was a Wall Street banker and two-term Senator, and the children spent the Depression years with maids, a cook, and a driver. They summered in Maine, and Bush attended a private academy for high school and Yale for college. It seems likely that, at a time when a public was suffering under economic hardship, critics would have found something to peg their grievances to.

There have been other incidents that rightfully invited criticism beyond George H.W. Bush’s policy—racial dog whistles in his campaign and allegations of inappropriate touching later in his life, for example. But given how dubious the grocery scanner story is, it might be best to give it a miss while reviewing the notable moments of the 41st presidency.