R.I.P. President Bush
By Patrick F. Cannon
Before I retired from the daily grind, I had occasion to meet three United States Presidents. I actually met Jimmy Carter three times, once during his term and the others after. He was not a successful President, but has done a good deal since to enhance his reputation as an effective humanitarian. While others may not agree, I found him excessively judgmental and more than a little sanctimonious.
Ronald Reagan spoke at one of our international conventions (Lions Clubs International, where I managed public relations and communications). How can I describe him? I can only say he was much as you might have expected – playing his role to the hilt. I was cleared by the Secret Service to be near him, but only one of our staff members – a colleague who was in charge of physical arrangements and thus worked closely with the Secret Service advance team – had his picture taken with the President. His presence was a last-minute thing. He was barnstorming the country in 1985 promoting his tax bill (you remember supply-side economics, don’t you?) and decided here were 20,000 Lions club members from around the world ready and even eager to hear him in Dallas.
When a sitting President shows up, you basically get out of the way. An advance team shows up and tells you what to do, no input needed or allowed. If you’re going to be anywhere near the President, they do a background check. In a former life, I had had a top security clearance, so I was given a lapel button to signify my exalted status. Other than giving me his usual movie star smile as he passed on the way to the stage, I had no interaction with him.
George H.W. Bush was Vice President when he spoke at our Phoenix convention in 1981. As I recall, we had invited Reagan; when they offered Bush instead, we didn’t feel able to say “no thanks.” As it turned out, he was quite affable and approachable. He agreed to meet the entire Lions board of directors (100 people including spouses) at a special reception. Security wasn’t as intense as it would be with Reagan, and I was permitted to arrange for my staff to take photos. Bush spoke to each couple in turn, and was more than gracious. He had actually previously met a couple of the board members, and had mutual friends with others. After he spoke later that day, he took the time to thank me for my assistance.
In 1998, we hired him to speak at our convention in Birmingham, England. He had been out of office for two years, and was available because he had other commitments in Europe. As a past President, he still had a Secret Service detail. Only two agents arrived with him, although two London-based agents had come the day before to look the venue over.
He was scheduled to arrive about an hour before his scheduled speech, and I got a heads-up call about 15 minutes before his car arrived. Since the board members were already on the stage, the party greeting him consisted only of the chairman of the convention committee, the current international president and me. After we escorted him to the so-called “Green Room,” our officers left to take their places on stage.
It was a typical room of its type – a couch, two or three chairs, a coffee table and a phone. Coffee and soft drinks were also provided. I mentioned that the phone was a direct outside line and he was welcome to use it. I mentioned that we had met before, at our Phoenix convention. He said he remembered it well, and being a politician, maybe he did! After a few more pleasantries, I told him I would return about 10 minutes before he was due to be introduced (about 20 minutes from then).
I went to the arena to see how the program was progressing, and one of the Lions’ employees who worked on venue set up came up to me and asked if it might be possible to get his picture taken with Bush. My first inclination was to say no, but then I thought, why not? After all, we were paying his fee. I grabbed one of our cameras, made sure it had enough film, and told him to get any other staff members who weren’t busy just then and come with me.
I knocked on the Green Room door and the Secret Service agent let me in. Bush was looking at his notes and I said something like this: “President Bush, some of our staff members who actually do all the work here asked if they could have their picture taken with you.”
“Of course, be glad to,” he said immediately.
“How many are there?” This from the Secret Service agent.
“Five. I’ll take the pictures.”
“OK, one at a time.”
So, one by one they came in. Bush asked each one their name, where they were from and what job they did. He posed with each, and I snapped a couple of exposures. That’s all it was, but he did it with unfeigned interest and charm. The only regret I have is I forgot to get my own picture taken with him!
My experience with George Herbert Walker Bush wasn’t dramatic or earthshaking, but I think it says something about the difference between a true gentleman and the current President, who reminds me of the old joke about the Hollywood actress having lunch with a friend. She regales her with all her wonderful roles and other achievements, but finally stops and says “but that’s enough about me. What did you think of my latest picture?”
Copyright 2018, Patrick F. Cannon