By Dennis Minich
I have never had the chance to meet a sitting president, although I have been close.
I was driving northbound on U.S. 71 Highway one morning and the presidential motorcade was heading southbound with President George W. Bush (43) inside. I was at KCI one morning waiting to depart, but our flight was delayed as Air Force One was arriving. I got to see the plane with President Obama inside. And while I was in Washington, D.C. recently, I had the presidential motorcade go flying by me with President Trump aboard. All three were actually kind of exciting. It’s not everyday we midwestern folk get to see the presidential plane or the presidential limousine in real life.
I have, however, seen two men who served as president of the United States, one after his term in office; the other, long before he ascended to the presidency.
The first was President Gerald Ford. While I was in school, his daughter, Susan, was also enrolled at KU. During one semester I saw her every day; she had a class just ahead of mine so she was always leaving as I was arriving. She wasn’t hard to pick out. She was the one with three secret service agents around her. While she was there, the rumor floated around on campus her father would be speaking on campus.
No one knew for certain what classes he would be addressing, but it was thought it would be one undergraduate course and one law school class.
So I took the time to search the class catalog and make a guess at where he might speak. I found a political science class on the presidency so I gave it a shot and signed up for the class. It was a good guess.
The day he was on campus was pretty crazy. He had been out of office for a year or two, but there were still snipers on top of a couple of buildings, there were secret service and police everywhere and we had to go through metal detectors as we entered the class- not so strange sounding now, but it was then.
The best I can remember, his presentation was pretty unremarkable. There were probably about 30 of us in the class and once he had concluded his remarks, he stepped back as we were shown the door.
All I really remember was the talk was pretty dry and I was not inspired by his presence. Just from his demeanor and attitude he really didn’t strike me as the kind of guy I would want to sit and chat with for an extended period of time.
The other president was George H.W. Bush, who died this past weekend.
I actually saw him twice. The first was about a year after the encounter with Ford. Bush came to campus to present a lecture of some sort. At that time, he was director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Getting into the lecture hall was somewhat complicated because a large group of Iranians were out front protesting, with chants of kicking the CIA off campus.
Again, I remember little of the actual speech, which was to a much larger audience than Ford’s. But I do remember he seemed much more casual and personal in his presentation.
A couple years after that I was attending a convention in St. Louis. Bush, at that time, was the chairman of the Republican National Committee. He, of course, was sitting at the head table and I was seated at a table just a few feet away.
When there was a lull in activity between courses, I took it upon myself to walk up, stick out my hand and introduce myself. I shared my story with him of our first encounter and he remembered the protesters. He actually took a couple of minutes to chat with me as I squatted in front of the head table of the large dining room filled with convention attendees.
He asked me about myself, we made a couple unremarkable comments. I thanked him for his time and he thanked me for coming up to speak with him.
While he was president, I had mixed feelings. There were things he did which I liked and others I didn’t. But I always felt there was a civility about his handling of things, something which has certainly been lacking in politics since.
I have heard many descriptions of him and they always seem to include adjectives like “kind” and “congenial.” Based on my very brief meeting, that would be my assessment as well.
He was famous for saying he hoped for “a kinder and gentler America”. It would be wonderful if we all still strove for that goal.