I was sitting at the house last Sunday waiting to watch the American Country Music Awards – I still know and can understand most of those singers, unlike the Grammy Awards where people are rapping and making no sense what-so-ever to me – when the news popped up about former First Lady Barbara Bush’s failing health.
Then the word came that Mrs. Bush had passed away.
I’ve always been a big fan of “Barb.” She was always a class act. I mean – how many women have been the wife and confidant of a US president, mother of a US president, mother of two governors (Texas and Florida), grandmother of a Texas Land Commissioner and a great role model for every future First Lady to come?
I had the privilege to meet her and President George H.W. Bush in 1991, when the First Couple attended a “Points of Light” event at Walt Disney World’s 20th anniversary celebration. The term “a thousand points of light” came from a President Bush campaign speech and was turned into a national program to promote volunteerism. At the ceremony held at WDW’s Epcot Center’s America Gardens Theatre, President Bush addressed the many volunteers in attendance in front of the media and top Disney executives.
"They (volunteers) sum up the genius of this great and generous land - ordinary people doing extraordinary things,’’ Bush said.
It was a great experience and one that almost didn’t happen.
I had been invited to the event because I was a newspaperman from East Texas, and the East Texas oil field and President Bush had a long and prosperous relationship. And I had made friends with the Disney PR folks during previous press trips to Orlando. Disney flew us out – me, Suzanne and our son, Josh – put us up at one of their new hotels and gave us free park passes. So, Suzanne and Josh headed out to play and I went to work.
I joined several other members of the media – a reporter and photographer from the Chicago Sun Times and one from the New York Times – waiting for our driver to get us to EPCOT for the ceremony which was to start at noon. And if you’ve ever attended an event where a sitting president is speaking, you know the Secret Service locks everything down well ahead of that. So, as we waited and waited, I became anxious because I had this sinking feeling that our driver had forgotten us and we were not going to make it to this special event.
At 10:30 I took matters into my own hands and called my Disney PR friends and asked – “Where the Heck (not the word I used) is our ride?” They had no idea and promised to find us a new ride, but I doubted they could solve this in time so I talked to the hotel manager and explained our dilemma.
The next thing I knew he personally grabbed a limo, loaded us up and raced to the back of EPCOT, then escorted us through the various rings of Disney security and deposited us at the metal detector manned by the Secret Service. I could see the event venue just 200 feet away and knew we had averted disaster. Or so I thought. Remember me telling you how the Secret Service locks events down early so they can sweep the area for potential hazards? Well they had locked the sucker down 10 minutes before we arrived and these stone-faced guys with sunglasses and bulges in their suit coats were not about to let us in. The Chicago and New York reporters then stepped up and flashed their big city credentials at the Secret Service and demanded to be let in.
Now I’m not from New York and I’m not from Chicago, but even I can tell you that kind of attitude ain’t working on Secret Service guys or anyone other than Barney Fife.
With little to lose, I gave it a try and quickly explained our situation and what had happened about the driver and for some reason the guy seemed to actually listen to my story. Then this plain clothes Disney Security guy stepped up and pointed at me and said – “I know you.” I smiled and said – “of course you do, It’s me Jim.”
Now folks – I have no idea to this day who that guy was. I obviously met him at another Disney event and must have made a good impression. While I didn’t know the guy, I acted like he was my long, lost cousin.
He leaned over to the Secret Service guys and whispered something, then the walls of Jericho came tumbling down and they escorted us to our seats.
Why? I have no idea. But I’ll take a gift from heaven any time. And it was kind of nice that the Big City reporters were extra nice to me throughout the event. Nice that is until it was over and only I was tapped on the shoulder and led to a roped off area that contained a big white tent and the President and First Lady.
Once inside we all stood in a line waiting for the First Couple to walk by and shake our hands. I’d like to tell you I was not nervous and was cool, calm and collected. I’d like to tell you that – but then I’d be lying. I leaned over the rope line and saw Mrs, Bush walking ahead of the President and she was getting closer and closer.
Before I knew it she was standing in front of me and a man was whispering in her ear – I assume telling her who I was. Telling her who I was? I was nobody, I was just another hand to shake.
She reached out and took my hand and said – “So you’re from Longview. Do you know Harry Vowell? Harry is an old friend of ours.”
“Ah yes ma’am. I know Harry, I mean Mr. Vowell. I mean, I’ve met Mr. Vowell and interviewed him,” I said while trying not to stammer too much and praying I wasn’t leaving a pool of sweat in her hand.
She smiled at me in a very calming way and then turned to President Bush and said “George, George – come here. Jim, here, knows Harry Vowell in Kilgore.”
I was stunned. President Bush quickly made his way to Mrs. Bush and shook my hand and asked how Harry Vowell was. Now I had no idea what to say – so I simply smiled and told the President and Mrs. Bush “Harry was fine the last time I saw him.”
Heck, I hadn’t see Harry Vowell in a year, but I wasn’t lying – he was in good health the last time I saw him.
Mrs. Bush leaned in, smiled and said “You tell Harry we send our best,” and then she and President Bush moved on down the line.
In no way would I pretend to tell you I know Mrs. Bush. But on that one day in 1991 Mrs. Bush made one young newspaperman’s day a memorable one and made me feel like she really cared about meeting me. Yes, she was a professional at working political lines and knew how to make people feel important – but for me she made a special effort to connect and find common ground.
Thanks Mrs. Bush and thank you for a lifelong memory.