How a president calmed my nerves when it comes to famous people
In the latest years of his life, President George H.W. Bush has, like most, felt the weight of age. At this moment, he is in the midst of his latest visit to a Houston hospital, though the prognosis is good.
The president is the reason I rarely get star struck, and I'm thankful for that emotional evolution and how it came about.
The first celebrity I got to interview as a professional was Chuck Norris in June 2004. "Walker, Texas Ranger" is a favorite of my grandparents, so if nobody else cared, they did.
The TV star had just jumped out of a perfectly good airplane with President Bush as the latter celebrated his 80th birthday at his presidential library at Texas A&M. It was surreal on so many levels.
Norris couldn't have been nicer to a 22-year-old kid a month removed from college. I'd like to think I asked some good questions. He had given countless interviews. The way he treated me stuck with me, though, and I recently got the chance to recount the encounter with him. I thanked him for his kindness. He's still kind to this day.
The Norris interview and former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev waving at me made the day unique for sure, but for whatever reason, it didn't cure me of fear of celebrity or prominence.
That moment wouldn't come my way until February 2006, and it taught me a valuable life lesson: we're all human beings, no matter our jobs or our circumstances.
In his inaugural address in 1989, President Bush referred to the volunteers of America as points of light:
"I have spoken of a Thousand Points of Light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good."
Shortly after he started in office, he created the Points of Light Foundation aimed at spotlighting and improving volunteerism in America. A Daily Point of Light Award is given by the group to those who make great impacts on their communities.
As the board of the foundation met at the Bush Library, the president wanted to personally give out a Daily Point of Light to someone in the Brazos Valley. That ended up being Ruth Clearfield of College Station, who passed away in 2015 after nearly 40 years living in and serving our area in a wide range of efforts.
President Bush gave a speech at a podium in front of Clearfield's family and friends and the assembled media. The honoree and honorer posed for pictures, and I had the harebrained idea to ask if the president would talk just to me and my camera. The request came in the form of a yell above the crowd chatter and camera snaps.
"Do you have time for a quick comment, Mr. President?"
I was petrified, visions of rebuke by the former leader of the free world and ejection by Secret Service rolling through my head in what was mere seconds that felt agonizingly long.
His response was quick, though: "On this?"
I had no questions on any other topic, though I'd like to think I could have come up with something more had the door been open. It likely would be shut, so there was no other response to his question.
"Yes," I answered.
"Yeah," he accepted.
The exchange was captured by my photographer, and I kept the raw video and audio, along with the story itself.
I hadn't truly considered the possibility that the president would accept my request. Flustered, I asked my photographer to get the camera ready, and when I turned around, there was arguably the greatest public servant in modern American history.
I'd interviewed the president once before, months earlier. It was at an event where the interaction was inevitable, a dedication ceremony honoring 41. This was nothing pre-planned. It was something I generated.
The full interaction is lost to the recesses of my mind, but I do remember the nerves I had, the weight I felt to try and carry one end of a conversation with the guy who ran the country for four years.
I went with a question about what was next on the schedule for him after the board meetings. He said he would be on his way to the funeral services for Martin Luther King Jr.'s wife, Coretta Scott King, and that he would be going with former President Bill Clinton and "my son."
Oh yeah...this guy is also the father of the 43rd president, in office at the time, leading the free world like his dad. The weight of the moment felt even heavier.
But like Chuck Norris and so many people who I've had the honor of coming into contact with through my work, President Bush displayed a kindness and friendliness that you would get from your neighbor or your colleague or your friend. It's what I've gotten from him each of the half-dozen or so times we've chatted.
If the man who was once the most powerful human in the world could make the power disappear from my nerve-wracked mind, then why wrack nerves with anyone?
I've had the chance to cover five presidents and ask questions of three. Two of those three are Bushes, who recently got together for a visit. It came in that Houston hospital where the father continues to recover, smiles from both in a picture posted to social media by both. They look like genuine smiles from powerful people, with emphasis on people over power.
Lessons I Learned:
- Treat your interview subject with respect
- Everyone is a person, regardless of job
- If you don't ask a question, you'll never get an answer