Instead of writing the usual cluster of postcards from this past year, I am retaining one outstanding memory – the grace of two presidents, in the home where they have lived, and a handshake that remains with me to this day.
I got to visit the White House on Feb. 15, after a friend scored a special invitation (not a press credential) for the ceremony for 15 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, including Stan Musial. My biography of Musial was almost done, and he was being flown in from St. Louis to receive his medal, at the age of 90.
On a cold, gorgeous sunny day, I met up with John Zentay, a Washington lawyer who in 1962 had escorted Musial to the White House to meet President John F. Kennedy. I told the story the next day in The New York Times, how Zentay was carrying a photo of young Stan the Man and young J.F.K., and how we spotted Musial being escorted in a wheelchair by his grandson to the security gate. While the old star waited for clearance, Zentay showed him the photo. Then another invited guest — a handsome woman with what could best be described as vigah — strode up and spotted the photograph.
“That’s my brother,” she said. It was Jean Kennedy Smith, the last Kennedy sibling, who was also to receive a medal that day. Musial, who is slowing down, did not respond, but Zentay and I were thrilled by her reaction.
What I did not mention in my column the next day was meeting Yo-Yo Ma, another medal recipient, at the gatehouse. Open and bubbly, he chatted with all of us as we waited. I thanked him for the Silk Road Project CD I have at home; I could have thanked him for dozens of other performances. What a nice guy.
The ceremony was also described in the Times — great sports figures like Jim Brown and Joe Morgan honoring their friend Bill Russell, and Musial’s family looking on proudly as he received his medal from President Obama.
After that came a reception — refreshments, mingling, casual introductions. I sought out President George H.W. Bush, who was also in a wheelchair that day, but had willed himself into standing when presented with the Presidential medal.
Because we were in the White House — smaller, more intimate, than you might think — I could not help remembering how my childhood friend Angus Phillips, the long-time outdoor columnist with The Washington Post, was once invited for a predawn fishing expedition with President Bush. Through a lapse in protocol, Angus found the president padding around his living quarters in a bath robe. Angus was mortified but President Bush was cool.
In 2011, President Bush was back, casually hanging around his old residence with the medal around his neck. I asked him about the whereabouts of his old George McQuinn first baseman glove that he wore for Yale in the College World Series of 1947 and 1948. He once displayed the mitt to a gaggle of sportswriters when we visited the White House to schmooze about baseball. This time the 41st president turned to his wife and said, “Hey, Bar,” and asked about the glove. Like any older married couple — I can relate — they could not remember where the glove was stored in Houston. Once again, I was reminded what a decent and approachable man he is.
This is the part I did not tell in my column. Not enough space. Too personal:
As the guests mingled, I heard a flurry of applause from a front foyer, where a military chamber group had been playing. I heard the hum of a cello, followed by applause and laughter, and I followed the sound. It turned out that Yo-Yo Ma had asked the military cellist if he could sit in for one movement of Dvorak, and when he finished, President Obama, still mingling with his guests, had given him a warm hug. Clearly, they are kindred souls as well as a couple of Harvard guys.
The president was tall and graceful and very much at ease as he started moving toward the hallway.
My friend, who had arranged my guest pass, introduced himself and asked the president about something they had in common. Politely, President Obama stopped, gave my friend his attention, and answered the question. Then he said: “I’m sorry, guys, but I’ve got to go. I’ve got some work to do.”
As any guests would do, the people nearest to him cleared a path, and in a chorus said, “Go! Go!” the way any guests would do for a host who needed to take care of business.
As the president strode toward a stairway, he could have picked up speed, looked straight ahead, but this was his borrowed home, and he was the host. As he walked, he made eye contact. I was pressed against a wall, just another guest in a dark suit, not about to interrupt him, but the president stuck out his hand and greeted three or four of us, who were clearing space for him. I felt his hand for a second, and then he was gone, up the stairway, out of sight.
As a long-time journalist, I have met a lot of people, and I force myself on people only when on duty. However, the glow of the offered handshake has stayed with me as I recall the short chat with President Bush, and the instinctive inclusion from President Obama. Nearly a year later, I still relish the brief exposure to their grace.
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.