I’ve never met a sitting president. But I’m pretty good at answering a phone call.
One evening in 1988 while working at the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, through a stroke of luck, I had dinner with the man who would become the 41st president of the United States. I use the word “luck,” first because who wouldn’t like to dine with a president, and second, because George Herbert Walker Bush was one of the most genuinely engaging people I have met in decades of journalism. I wouldn’t have wanted to have missed the chance.
South Dakota was experimenting by bumping its presidential primary to Feb. 23 that year, trying to get in on some of the action and influence Iowa had experienced for years with its early primary. It ended up being a one-time shot, but whether successful or not, it was interesting and lots of fun to be in the news business at the time. I was assigned to cover the seven Democrats in the primary, and a colleague had the five Republicans, which included Bush.
Bush had met with the paper’s editorial board earlier in the day on this particular visit to the state, and as Vice President, he had complete Secret Service detail with him. A bomb-sniffing dog was taken through the building, and Secret Service officers posted themselves here and there during the meeting. It was a little thrilling, but most of us just tried to focus on getting our stories written before deadline.
It was sometime after 5 p.m., when the phone in the newsroom rang and rang. In those days, an incoming call would go to an overhead ring if the person being called didn’t pick it up. It was everyone’s responsibility to answer it at that point. I grabbed the call and was greeted by Bush’s campaign manager who told me to ask my boss, Ward Bushee and his wife, to meet Bush for dinner at Minerva’s. The campaign manager told me I could come along, too.
I put him on hold. I still can’t believe I did that. I told my boss about the invite, he quickly agreed, and then I finished my own story as fast as I could write.
I didn’t cover the Republicans in this primary and hadn’t been in on the editorial board meeting, but the invite was simply my reward for answering an incessant phone, I guess.
During the dinner – we were seated at a table in the back of the restaurant with Secret Service agents in booths all around us – Bush talked with the three of us as if we were nieces and nephews at a family dinner. He clearly loved being around young people and engaging with them, even if we were complete strangers.
When it was time to order, he had a steak but said no to the vegetable of the day, broccoli, which I later found out he hated. I don’t remember many specifics about the conversation from 30 years ago, but I remember the person and thinking that his character, congeniality and graciousness that evening would always stick with me.
I looked it up, and Bush went on to lose the Moody County primary, 141 votes to Bob Dole’s winning 427. And Bush finished third in the South Dakota primary. But he won the job as the next President.
Democrat Richard Gephardt won the Moody County and statewide primary over Michael Dukakis, who ended up being the party’s nominee. I had many opportunities to meet them and the others in the race, including Al Gore, who showed me coin tricks after an interview in the back of a limo in Pennington County. But those are stories for another day.
As the country celebrates the life of a 94-year-old man who served our nation from its highest office, it’s easy to put aside partisan politics and mistakes in history. The service and the man himself seem much more important.
History likely will treat Bush well as the president in office when the Cold War ended. Even now, even though he only was in office for one term, his service to our country is from a time when people seemed more important than politics.
Somewhere in the pages of how generations after will remember George H.W. Bush I hope there is a footnote that goes beyond accomplishments and speaks to his character and his joy at being president -- he understood what a privilege it was -- and his generosity for the people of our country.