George and Me

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Bush turned to me and said, “C’mon, let’s put our arms around each other to show everyone we’re friends.”

You may not remember this. Leonard Zelig was the kind of ordinary everyday man who  you’d expect to live an ordinary everyday life. Somehow, though, he managed to find himself regularly appearing with extraordinary celebrated people during extraordinary celebrated events. Leonard Zelig isn’t a real person. Never was. Yet Woody Allen’s brilliant 1983 mockumentary Zelig left theater-goers thinking he was.

It seems like we all have our Leonard Zelig moments. We live each ordinary day in an ordinary way. Then, fate brings us face-to-face with extraordinary people in extraordinary times. Think about the times you’ve found yourself at the same shop with a movie or TV star – someone who seems so distant because our only connection to them is through some unapproachable media context. When we’re young, that can be a very exciting thing. As we age, we come to understand those distant stars are no different than us.

Like you, I’ve had my fair share of close encounters. Like the time I rode the train seated across from Pearl Bailey. (Don’t remember her? Read “My Lunch with Pearl Bailey,” Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel, September 13, 1990, to find out more about the incident and the subject.) I always tried my best to be polite and respect the person as a person. (Except in the case of John Dean, who, while having dinner with him, I bluntly said, “You realize if you were in the Mafia you’d be dead.” He laughed out of respect, but also out of understanding the truth of my statement.)

But these were all one-time chance and not-so-chance meetings. There have been a very small number of times when my Zelig-like appearance happened upon the same person on multiple occasions. Such was the case with the then and future President of the United States, George H. W. Bush. Yes, our paths crossed several times in the span of his initial ascendency through the peak of his accomplishments. His reaction upon our meeting confirms my own peon-like existence, but also reveals something about the man himself.

It all started when destiny assigned me to Davenport College, one of a dozen residential colleges where Yale students were expected to spend their four years.

Among the “fellows” of Davenport – “fellows” are distinguished alumni and faculty members whose purpose is to informally mentor undergraduates looking for a mentor – was a member of the class of 1948 who once served in Congress and was most recently the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. His name was George Bush.

One Friday evening sophomore year, I was ambling along the slate walkway back to my room when a friend galloped by. “Hey, Chris!” he bellowed enthusiastically, “Wanna go to Vermont for the weekend. It won’t cost you anything. Plus, we get to go to a fancy banquet for free. George Bush is speaking.”

I didn’t bother to ask, “What’s the catch?” I simply said, “OK.” Such was the state of my mind (maybe it was because the Bills had lost three straight). Also, my friend made me feel obligated to show support for a Davenport Fellow. Mind you, at the time, like all Buffalo Bills fans, I was holding out hope that Jack Kemp would run for president.

Off to Vermont I went, to the annual dinner of the Vermont State Republican Committee Saturday night. After the speech, we were corralled into a private room to meet the keynoter. This was to be the first time I met George H. W. Bush.

I treated him with the intellectual respect and youthful inquisitiveness one would normally show to a professor. After the usual cordials, I got down to business. I asked him what he thought about Kemp’s supply-side economics proposal. He abruptly answered, “Take econ 101.” This was during Bush’s “voodoo economics” stage. I came away with the impression that Bush understood the challenge ahead of him and, maybe, just maybe, it made him a bit anxious.

The exchange made quite apparent my place in the world: nothing more than one of those anonymous Oscar night seat-fillers. (Don’t know who those are? Then you understand exactly how I felt.) I kept to myself the rest of the trip. Perhaps I was contemplating Bush’s anxiety. Perhaps I was mulling over my own insignificance. More likely, though, I was tired and wondering if the Buffalo Bills would beat Detroit the next day.

The next February, in 1980, the same group of friends invited me to Campaign for Bush’s campaign in Concord, New Hampshire. At this point, I was disappointed that Kemp decided not to run. I liked Reagan, but didn’t think he had a chance to win. Once again, I stayed true to my school and went door-to-door for Bush.

We met the candidate briefly during this sojourn. The leader of our group reminded him of our supporting role at the Vermont Republican State Dinner the previous fall. Bush was friendly, saying he remembered us being there. Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t.

I didn’t talk to him about Kemp’s tax plan in New Hampshire. I thought it would have been in poor form. Especially when I caught the corner of his eye. It almost seemed like he was looking at me as a potential troublemaker. The last thing I wanted was the former director of the CIA to label me a “troublemaker.”

And that was that. I left New Hampshire thinking two things: I had done enough of the “stay true to your school” thing and, by golly, regular folks really liked Reagan. (If you’re interested in reading more about the eerie coincidence that happened to me in the 1980 presidential election, read “Here’s What I Learned When I was a Professional Political Pollster,” Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel, November 17, 2016.)

Nearly a decade later, the Monroe County Republican Committee invited then Vice-President George Bush as keynote speaker for their annual dinner. As president of the Young Republicans, the County Chairman invited me to sit at the head table along with the Vice President and other County dignitaries. I sat at the end of the table. It was a courtesy invite. I’m pretty sure most of the county big-wigs thought I was a troublemaker. I asked too many questions during committee meetings.

Prior to the dinner the White House set up an “official picture” room for members of the head table. I was last in line. I dressed my best. I wanted to fit in. Except for one thing. I didn’t wear a power tie. Yes, it was too cliché, but I had an ulterior motive. I wore a navy blue tie imprinted with a series of Davenport College crests. It was a test to see if Bush would recognize it.

Person by person, Bush made small talk. He made everyone feel comfortable, took the picture, and then plainly moved on to the next person. Like my classmates in Vermont years earlier, each Monroe County big-wig gushed with overwhelming enthusiasm having just shook hands with a Washington big-wig.

Then it was my turn. Cinderella at the ball. The Monroe County logistics staff told me to “make it quick as we are running behind.” I obliged.

Bush did not.

Yes, he started with the customary pleasantries. We moved on to the standard hand-shaking picture. The camera clicked once, then twice, as Bush’s eyes drifted down to my tie. The staffer who held my arm tugged to escort me away. Bush held his hand up to stop her. “What’s that tie?” he asked as she backed off.

“I was in Davenport College,” I signaled in return.

Bush’s eyes lit up. His peepers told me I represented an escape from the stuffy hobnobbers that then filled his life. He opened up in a way he hadn’t all evening. Seeing this, the others began to mumble, “Who is this guy?”

I mentioned I met him once in Vermont. I didn’t remind him about my question. Bush preferred to talk about Davenport and Yale. We each spoke knowingly about each. Then he motioned to the White House photographer. “Come here and take a real picture.” Bush turned to me and said, “C’mon, let’s put our arms around each other to show everyone we’re friends.”

The photographer took the shot and I had earned my black-and-white Zelig moment.

As the staff escorted me away, Bush couldn’t resist one parting shot.

“Hey, Chris!” he shouted above the din. “You were right about Kemp’s plan.”

Wow. He really did remember.

Eye-on-eye in unofficial White House photo

Eye-on-Tie in Official White House photo as staffer attempts to pull author away.

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