How I Met Six Presidents And Scored The Souvenirs To Prove It
His Ownself's new memoir includes flights on Air Force One, weekends at Camp David and rounds of speed golf with 41
Adapted/excerpted with permission from His Ownself: A Semi-Memoir, published by Doubleday © 2014 by D&J Ventures, Inc. 288 pages, $26.95.
Though it was never a goal in life, it has occurred to me that I've met six presidents of the United States. OK, I met four of them before they became president, including Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, No. 43.
The first president I met was LBJ. My wife, June, and I were among a group selected to accompany Lyndon on Air Force One to Fort Worth, where he would make the commencement address at our alma mater, TCU.
We flew from Andrews Air Force Base to Carswell Air Force Base, and quite smoothly, I might add. There was a moment during the flight when LBJ came down the aisle and greeted everyone, after which he retired to his office and bedroom behind the door with the presidential seal on it and ate his chili.
We were told by a staff person on board that we were welcome to take souvenirs off the plane. We took cigarettes, candy bars, matchbooks and napkins to scatter among friends.
I kept three packs of cigarettes. I still have one unopened. It sits on a bookshelf, a reminder of the days when smoking was more important to me than world peace.
When our kids reached junior-high age they couldn't resist the temptation. They smoked two of the packs with the presidential seal on them one evening while we were out to dinner. They confessed.
Sally said, "Marty and Danny and Eric Olson did it." Marty said, "Sally and Vivien Zak and Sarah Graves did it." Danny said, "What cigarettes?"
A FRIENDSHIP WITH 41
The president I came to know best was George Herbert Walker Bush. No. 41 in your program, No. 1 on your list of fast-playing golfers. We met when June, Sally and I were surprisingly invited to the White House on an afternoon in late spring of 1989 for the unveiling of 41's horseshoe pit. There were buffets of food, beverages for the thirsty, and a small military band playing country music.
We were milling about when I noticed the president motioning for me to come over to where he stood in a cluster of well-wishers. I pulled June and Sally along. The well-wishers parted for us.
The prez was relaxed and friendly. I managed to keep a grip on my nonchalance when 41 began to quote passages from my novels, laughing as they came to mind. He asked who certain characters were based on. So began a friendship.
We stayed at the party for an hour and a half, then walked across Pennsylvania Avenue for drinks and made general observations on the events of the day. Sally said, "Pop, do you realize the leader of the free world was quoting your books to you?"
I said, "Walter Cronkite was there today?"
The president and I exchanged written notes over the next several months. His were brief. A word about his golf game. The latest golf joke. A comment on national politics.
Like many who know him, I have a collection of correspondence from him that fills a three-inch-thick loose-leaf notebook.
I was covering the 1990 U.S. Open at Medinah when he tracked me down. I was sitting in the press lounge with Blackie Sherrod and Jim Murray. A USGA volunteer came over to tell me I had a phone call from the president of the United States. Blackie and Jim gave me a look. I said, "Somebody's playing a joke. Ignore it."
A little later, the volunteer returned. "Mr. Jenkins, it really is the White House. President Bush is trying to reach you."
"This better be important," I said to Blackie and Jim, who were giving me another look.
I walked to the phone at the media-operations desk. President Bush said, "Dan, where did they find you?" "I'm at the U.S. Open at Medinah in Chicago, Mr. President." He said, "Of course you are. I'm watching it."
This was the phone call that led to my first round of golf with a president of the United States. But before the golf it led to coffee in the Oval Office, lunch on the residence floor of the White House and a ride on Marine One, the presidential chopper. The carpeted interior was decorated no more comfortably than a room at a Ritz-Carlton.
It was the first of my two weekends at Camp David.
We dined in a small area of the White House across the hall from the boss' master suite. As we were leaving for the golf game, an elevator door opened, a door I hadn't noticed before, and out stepped Brent Scowcroft, the national security advisor.
The president introduced me. I didn't have to be told that the two of them needed to have a private conversation.
"Is there anyplace I can smoke around here?" I asked 41. He said, "Sure. Go out on the Truman Balcony down there by the Lincoln Bedroom."
In the five minutes I spent on the balcony, I wondered what crisis was going to cancel my golf game with the president.