I’ve had the unique experience of being in the same room with five U.S. presidents. I’ve personally met three of them. One meeting however, stands out in my mind because of the organic nature of it, and the genuine human element that played a role in the encounter.
It was September 1992 and I was a teenager in New Jersey. I was informed through the Union County Young Republicans, a group I belonged to at the time, that President George H.W. Bush would be landing at Newark Airport that day. A bunch of YRs hopped into cars and raced over to try to get a glimpse of President Bush. I wound up getting much more than that. I ended up with a lifelong memory.
At the time of the Newark visit, President Bush was embroiled in a rough campaign for reelection against then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. Bush was visiting New Jersey to pick up an endorsement from law enforcement. Believe it or not, back in 92, the now ultra-blue Garden State was actually in play for Republicans. So, this visit by a sitting prez was big for those on hand and for the candidate.
Bush’s vice president was the main reason I became active in politics at a young age. Dan Quayle was my guy back then. Quayle received the Palin and Trump treatment before Palin and Trump. He was the original target of the unhinged. The weird, visceral hate of Vice President Quayle made me like him even more. The fact that President Bush was sticking with Quayle despite some pressure to drop him, made me respect Bush even more. That was a specific reason I liked Bush at the time. Not to mention I was a young man who was about to possibly see the President of the United States. That meant something to me.
Since we had the tip about Bush’s scheduled visit early in the day, we were able to get to Newark well before his arrival. In pre-9-11 times, you were able to move around airports pretty freely. So, we rather easily made our way to the front line of where we were told Bush would soon be. His eventual arrival proved to be powerful.
A helicopter came in for a landing. The rotors brought a huge wind across all of us gathered below. The arrival was loud and exciting. It was what you’d think a presidential landing should look like and sound like. President Bush was here.
After Bush exited the chopper, he was met by dignitaries and dozens of police who were backing the Bush-Quayle campaign. Others spoke first, until finally it was Bush’s turn. The president spoke highly of the men and women who protect and serve our communities. I hung on every word. We cheered for the man while waving our campaign signs. It was a great moment. It would’ve been more than enough.
Before Bush was introduced to speak, he made eye contact with me. For whatever reason he saw me. I guess I was pretty fired up. Perhaps my exuberance stood out. I don’t know. I noticed he was wearing a windbreaker as opposed to his usual suit and tie. I also noticed he was working on a lozenge. Heck, I noticed everything. I was just feet away from the Commander-in-chief. As I was watching 41’s every move, he looked back at me and nodded as to give me a ‘thank you for your support’ gesture. I thought that was amazing. Then it got even better.
When Bush was finished with his remarks he headed over to the rope line to shake some hands and sign some autographs. The crowd pushed its way toward him. I was right in the mix, sticking my campaign sign out in hopes of an autograph from the most powerful man in the world.
While Secret Service agents shielded him, Bush signed a few items, but I was still on the outside looking in. His handlers were loudly telling us it was time to go. Then Bush, still with a cough drop in his mouth, clearly said with purpose “OK, one more.” He almost sounded more like Dana Carvey doing a Bush routine than Bush himself. President Bush then grabbed my sign and signed it. When he finished he looked me straight in the eye and winked. “Thank you, young man,” Bush said. Incredible.
That is my personal memory of George Herbert Walker Bush. He was a man who made a teen’s day in a very special way.
As I grew up and learned more about issues and lawmakers, I had mixed feelings about Bush’s presidency. There were things he did that I supported wholeheartedly and other things he did that I most certainly did not like. To this day, as I was all those years ago, I am more of a Quayle guy. I’m certainly more of a Palin and Trump guy. Politically, Bush wasn’t a complete match for me. But, I will never forget the day he took an extra moment to engage with me. I’ll also always be grateful for the way his campaign started the fire I have for politics.
Since that September day in 1992 I have covered speeches by Barack Obama. I have attended rallies for George W. Bush. I have questioned Bill Clinton on his draft history on live television. I have interviewed Donald Trump on my radio program. All of these have special meaning in some way. When it comes to pure joy however, none compare to my interaction with Bush 41. It was real and unscripted. It was a tremendous moment during a more innocent time.
Today, that autographed Bush-Quayle 92 sign is proudly displayed in my home. It has always meant so much to me. I will now look at it with even more fondness.
Follow Kevin Scholla on Twitter @kevinscholla