3 Lessons I Learned Spending An Afternoon With President George H.W. Bush

David Gerken
Apr 29 · 6 min read
Me, President George H.W. Bush, Senator J. Bennett Johnston

It was a Saturday in September of 1991. I drove from my apartment in Washington, D.C., to McLean, Virginia, to play tennis with Senator J. Bennett Johnston (D-Louisiana).

I had moved to Washington after graduating from Princeton where I’d been a four-year varsity letterman and co-captain my senior year of the tennis team. A year earlier, during the summer of 1986, I’d interned for Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) who happened to be an avid tennis player. We played several times that summer so when I moved back for good in 1987, Senator Mitchell did me a huge solid by introducing me to the other Senate tennis fanatics, namely John Kerry (D-MASS), John Breaux (D-Louisiana) and Senator Johnston.

Capitol button pusher

Right off the bat, Sen. Mitchell got me a job as an elevator operator on the Senate side of the Capitol building. Though the job had a lot of ups and downs (sorry, couldn’t resist), it put me in the thick of meeting many important people who suffered the bad fortune of being accosted by me, resume in hand, as they headed to the Senate floor to vote. I eventually landed a legislative assistant position with current Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who, incidentally, remains one of the most impressive people I’ve ever met.

So back to that September day in 1991. As I walked up to Senator Johnston’s front door, he appeared before I could knock.

“David. Get back in the car. The President just called. We’re going to the White House.”

So the two of us got into my white Honda Accord, hit the George Washington Parkway and minutes later found ourselves at the south entrance to the White House. They asked for my social security number to do a background check on me, ostensibly to make sure I wasn’t on the FBI’s ten most wanted list. After my spotless criminal record was confirmed, the gate opened and we drove onto the White House grounds.

Once a smart-ass, always a smart-ass

As we warmed up on the White House tennis court, which is roughly fifty yards below the Oval Office, President Bush asked me how the Princeton team fared when I was there. My response:

“We finished second in the Ivy League most of my years…But we always beat Yale.”

Yale, of course, being where Bush went to college. My smartassiness, even to the President of the United States, knew no bounds, then or now.

After playing three sets of doubles we sat on a patio off the court where we drank water and chatted. From there we headed to the White House putting green and hit some golf balls. Then President Bush and I went swimming in the pool, while Senator Johnston hung out poolside. Then I drove Senator Johnston back to Virginia and headed home. What a day.

So. What lessons did I learn from that once-in-a-lifetime experience?

1. Kindness trumps all

President Bush is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. And that’s coming from a Democrat talking about a Republican. I don’t care. He was a genuinely good guy.

I had already heard that about him. And I also knew it from his daughter, Doro Bush Koch, who was and is a friend of mine. In fact…

DIGRESSION ALERT!

…Doro told me later that day when I called to tell her I’d played with her dad that she had just missed me, having arrived at the White House just after I left. She told me that had she seen us she would have made me do my impression of her dad…in front of her dad. I used to call her and talk to her in her dad’s voice, which, as she told me, sounded more like me impersonating Dana Carvey doing GHW Bush. By the way, woulda done the impersonation in front of him. Wouldn’ta been prudent, but woulda done it.

Doro married my friend, Bobby Koch, a year later at a small ceremony at Camp David. I’m sure I was the only person to check the regret box on the invitation. Why? My brother got married on the exact same day in Stockholm, Sweden. Family first.

End of digression.

So, how did President Bush show kindness toward me, a guy in his mid-20’s with precisely zero power and no way of helping him in any way, shape or form?

Example #1: As we were screwing around on the putting green, I quietly asked Sen. Johnston if there wasn’t some way we could get a picture taken. Sen. Johnston asked the President who then asked the Secret Service guys around us if they had a camera. No luck. So the President sent somebody up to the residence to get Mrs. Bush’s camera! A few minutes later, we got the shot taken you see above, arguably the coolest photo I’ve ever been in.

Example #2: As we chatted on the patio after the match, I told President Bush that my dad would kill me if I didn’t mention that he pitched against him in a baseball game when my dad’s alma mater, Wesleyan, played Yale. He asked what his name was. I told him and the President said he didn’t remember him.

End of story? Far from it. Two weeks later I get a signed photo from the President of the three of us on the putting green. Enclosed was a short note thanking me for the tennis match with a newspaper clipping from the Yale newspaper…From 1948! It was the story of that game, which showed that the President went 0 for 5 from the plate, but also stated that:

“Some convenient wildness on the part of relief twirler Walt Gerken set the stage for a three-run splurge in the seventh.”

Bush ended the note by writing:

“OK, so I went 0 for 5, but here’s a clipping that says it was not big Walt’s best day.”

My dad was ecstatic when he saw this, showing it to everybody he knew. My brother and I used to joke that it wasn’t past my dad to go into a public restroom and shove a copy of the note and the article under the stall to some perfect stranger, asking them to bask in his presidential glory.

In all seriousness, President Bush was a busy man, to say the least. The fact that he took the time to do this for me, and my dad, showed great kindness. It made a strong impression on me and deepened my desire to show that level of kindness to others.

2. Don’t be shy in big moments

As we stood there on the White House putting green, it occurred to me that our day with the President could quickly be ending. And it didn’t seem like any pictures were going to be taken. So I said, screw it, I’m going to ask Sen. Johnston if we could get a picture going. Worst thing that can happen is the senator says, “No, that wouldn’t be appropriate.” Fine.

But I did it. And now I have this cool picture that I can show my grandkids someday. Moral of the story: Don’t be shy when a big opportunity presents itself.

3. Stick your neck out for family and friends

As we were sitting there on the patio after playing, a big part of me said, “You’re a young idiot sitting with the President of the United States and a very powerful U.S. senator. Let them talk and shut your trap unless spoken to.” But I knew my dad would love it if I could tell him that I mentioned the whole Yale-Wesleyan baseball thing. So I threw caution to the wind and brought it up.

The result? My retired dad, who was a former Fortune 500 CEO with tons of accomplishments already, got a story he could tell for years to come. The lesson: Go to bat for those you love.

What a day. What a guy. Mr. President, wherever you are, thanks again for your kindness and hospitality. I’ll never forget it.

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