How I Met Six Presidents And Scored The Souvenirs To Prove It
The smokes from our trip with LBJ on Air Force One. (The kids didn't find these.)
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.
Photo: Dom Furore
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.
Brent Scowcroft was gone when I returned to the hall.
"No red-phone deal?" I said to the president. "No," he smiled. "No red-phone deal." On the ground floor we were heading for a door to the back lawn, where Marine One was waiting. The prez saw a tour group at the end of the hall and said, "I want to go say hello to these people. It's their house."
Marine One dropped us off in Frederick, Md., where a motorcade took us to Holly Hills Country Club. Two people who would complete our foursome were waiting there. One was U.S. Congressman Marty Russo, a Democrat from Illinois, known as the best golfer in the House of Representatives. The other was Walter Payton, Sweetness himself, who had retired from the Chicago Bears after the '87 season.
Marty Russo was too good a golfer to be a servant of the people. Payton was monstrously long, when we could find his tee shots.
The prez played extremely fast but enjoyed himself, even when he flubbed a chip shot, three-putted and heard an onlooker on the other side of a fence holler, "Does your husband play golf, too?"
The president invited me to play golf with him on other occasions. Some I was forced to skip—journalism intruded. But we did play in Gainesville, Va., on the Robert Trent Jones course, at Jupiter Hills in Tequesta, Fla., at Marsh Landing in Ponte Vedra Beach, at Cape Arundel in Kennebunkport, Maine, and we hit balls at Camp David.
'ARE THOSE OUR GUYS?'
The prez and I were playing a hole when I glanced down a cliff and saw a boat cruising slowly along Lake Manassas. On it were three people, two with weapons, and one looking up at us through high-powered binoculars.
"Are those our guys?" I asked him. "Those are our guys," he said. I felt sure the person with the high-powered binoculars was staring at me. I blamed him for the double bogey.
June and I were house guests of 41 and Barbara on a weekend in Kennebunkport when the boss let me try out a golf club in his bag as we were playing Cape Arundel. It was a new kind of metal wood.
I hit a 180-yard screamer with the club that found the green close to the pin for a birdie. I said to the prez, "This club is mine now."
"Keep it," he said. "They send me clubs all the time."
Camp David, for those who don't know, is located in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland. Catoctin. There's a word I challenge you to spell correctly if you're typing in a hurry. The camp is run by the Navy, guarded by the Marines, and the Army handles transportation.
You might not care for it unless you like squandering your time in beautiful woods with trails for walking, biking, horseback riding and discovering tennis courts, swimming pools, handball courts, a practice range for golf, a skeet range and all the well-appointed, rustic cabins named for trees: Aspen (the president's residence), Birch, Dogwood, Holly, and Laurel Lodge, where you have breakfast, and where meetings are held. And Hickory Lodge, where you find a café, gift shop, bar and bowling alley.
"This is good duty," a naval officer told me. "But I have to go to sea. You can't make rank if you don't go to sea."
June was with me on my second weekend at the retreat. We dined in the residence with the prez and Barbara, and later one evening sat in front of a fire and watched a movie yet to be released. Just folks doing what folks do on an average evening at home.
It took that one visit for world-traveler June Jenkins to put Camp David on her list of exquisite hotels. In there with the Mamounia in Marrakech for exotic, the Hôtel du Palais in Biarritz for grand, and the Baur au Lac in Zurich for charm.
My golf with 41 at Camp David consisted of hitting balls from the three sets of tees—long, middle, short—to the green that President Eisenhower had ordered installed below Aspen Cabin.
It started off as a match but deteriorated into us raining mulligans down on Ike's well-manicured green.
Another keeper moment came on my first visit. It reflected on what a decent and thoughtful man this 41st president was, a man who had served his country in more capacities than perhaps anyone ever had: decorated pilot of a torpedo bomber in World War II, U.S. congressman, U.N. ambassador, chief of the U.S. liaison office in China, CIA chief, vice president of the United States, president of the United States.
He was taking me on a tour of the grounds in a golf cart when he stopped in front of Holly Cabin, one of the oldest in the camp.
He said, "Go up on the porch and sit on that bench for a moment." "Why?" I asked. He said, "That's where Roosevelt and Churchill sat when they were planning the D-Day invasion." I went up on the porch of Holly Cabin, lit a Winston, and sat on the bench where FDR had smoked his Camel in the ivory cigarette holder and Churchill had puffed on his Cuban cigar.
When 41 lost the '92 election to Bill Clinton, we exchanged a couple of emails on the subject. Intending to cheer him up, one of mine said: "YOU feel bad? I just blew Camp David."