Editor’s note: This story originally published December 25, 1999. George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, died Friday night at the age of 94.
The oddest thing that happened to me in 25 years of sportswriting was the day I found myself in the bedroom of the President and first lady at 5:15 a.m., uninvited. The light clicked on and there they were, still in their jammies.
Okay, I may not have been actually in the chambers of George and Barbara Bush, but I sure was close, right in the doorway, creeping around after an aged butler who had led me to a place I obviously had no business being. The year was 1990 and the plan was to fish with the president that day for bass in the Potomac. I was early for my 5:30 appointment, and no one at the entrance seemed sure what to do except hand me a pass that basically allowed me to go wherever I wanted.
The butler seemed sleepy. “He must be expecting you in the residence,” he said, and led me on a trek down winding halls and through elegant meeting rooms to a small elevator. Up went the creaky lift to a darkened foyer in the chief executive's digs. “Follow me,” said the butler, and we crept into a drawing room where the President had left his rods and tackle box leaning against a door jamb, ready for an early start.
Where could he be? My guide led me into the bowels of the place until I stood in front of a pair of double doors. He kept going but something made me stop, and a good thing I did because at that instant a light snapped on in the room into which I peered, and there in a great fluffy bed sat the President of the United States, propped against a pillow alongside his wife.
I about swallowed my gum. “Psst!” I hissed at the butler. “Let's get out of here!”
We left so quickly I don't know whether the first couple even noticed the intrusion, but the confusion was only beginning. Back at the elevator, my guide scratched his head in puzzlement. “If you're not supposed to be here, I don't know where you should be.”
He knocked on a solid metal door and out popped a Secret Service man, whom he asked, “Where do you think this guy should be?”
The Secret Service man looked at the pass that hung around my neck with a big letter “A” on it, and said confidently, “He can go wherever he wants,” or words to that effect.
The butler decided to go downstairs to check if some reception was planned, and suggested I wait there in the foyer. “But, sir,” I stuttered as he clicked the elevator shut behind him, leaving me alone and unsupervised in the heart of the presidential palace. I swear I am not making any of this up.
As soon as I heard the elevator hit the landing below, I heard footsteps from the direction we'd just left. It was the President, in monogrammed, sky blue pajamas and fleece-lined leather slippers, and he had in hand a sheaf of papers that he was waving. He was hollering for the just-departed butler and issuing instructions on what to do with the papers, which for all I know may have been orders to bomb Moscow.
But when he came around the corner all he saw was a middle-aged sportswriter in a Batman baseball cap, the only one I could find that didn't have some logo on it. I spread my arms in a classic pose that said: “I am unarmed. I mean you no harm.”
But if he was the least concerned, he didn't show it. I guess presidents see a lot of unexpected things, because he sized me up instantly as someone who couldn't do whatever it was that needed to be done with those papers, and he turned on his heel, still waving them overhead. As he strode back to his bedroom, he declared: “Big fish to catch today. Big fish!”
The butler soon reappeared, saying coffee was ready downstairs at the South Entrance. There were lots of Secret Service people there, and about 10 minutes later the President appeared, tackle box and rods in hand. He greeted me as if nothing had happened, which of course, it hadn't.
We had a great day fishing.
The president caught several largemouth bass on rubber worms. Late in the day, he hooked one with some weight to it, but when he got it to the surface it turned out to be a big, slimy carp. Glenn Peacock, our guide, tried to cut the line with his pocket knife. He didn't want the world to see a professional bass guide landing a carp for the President.
But Bush wouldn’t hear of it and landed the fish with great fanfare. “I haven’t seen either of you catch anything this big,” he said, holding it high, and from that point on crowed about his great success outfoxing “the wily Potomac carp.”
We kept in touch over the next year or so. I sent him an AP photo of a guy with a carp about three times the size of his, and he sent me several notes and photos. My wife and I got invited to the White House Christmas Party and a couple of other functions. We've got pictures to prove it.
But I never again got in the President’s bedroom. That’s fine. Once was plenty.