One day nearly 30 years ago, I got a call at home from the sports department of The Washington Post.
“You said not to give your home phone number to anybody,” a young news aide said. “But can I give it to the president?”
“The president of what?” I said.
“The United States.”
A few minutes later, President George H.W. Bush called. We had chatted a bit at All-Star Games and baseball functions when he was vice president for eight years. Now he was president. While fishing in the South, he had heard, to his delight, that there was decent bass fishing near the White House. Was it true?
“Where are you, Mr. President?” I asked.
“In the Oval Office,” he said.
I told him that, if he looked over his shoulder, he could almost see that fishing spot. I would get The Post’s outdoors writer, Angus Phillips, to call him with the details.
Not long after, my wife got a call at home from a chilling-voiced government man with an ominous job title who said, “We’re looking for Thomas Boswell.”
“What’s he done?” she answered, worried.
“The president has the yips,” the voice said. “He’s playing in a tournament this week. Does your husband know anybody who could help fix his putting?”
“Where are you, Mr. President?” I asked when he called.
“The best short-game teacher in the world lives in Houston — Dave Pelz.”
Soon, the yips were cured.
If any man, certainly any president, believed in reciprocity, it was this gracious gentleman for whom I was suddenly glad that I had voted. Over time, my wife and I were invited to a horseshoe-pitching contest at the White House and other sports-themed events, including a mixed-doubles tennis match with “the boys” — that would be Marvin and Jeb — who played a spirited match with Chris Evert and Pam Shriver as their partners.
After tennis, everybody was invited back for dinner. After dessert, we were told: “Oh, go anywhere you want. Everybody wants to see the [White] House.” My wife asked whether we could see the Lincoln bedroom. “Sure.”
I’m not certain how many people have stolen the breakfast menu off the pillow in the Lincoln bedroom. Not saying my wife did. I did mention hidden cameras at the time. She said: “Who pays for all this stuff? The public. Us.”
One day in 1990, a long white limo pulled up in front of our house — the first and last time that has happened. A man delivered an envelope. “Knowing what a great baseball fan you are, I wanted you to have the enclosed Topps George Bush baseball card. Only 100 were made. Best wishes, George Bush.”
What struck me was that, as the captain of a Yale baseball team that played for the national championship in both 1947 and 1948, a team that included three future major leaguers, Bush could emphasize whatever he wanted in the statistics and honors on the back of the card. Included was his .251 career batting average in 175 at-bats, plus his .133 average (2 for 15) in “postseason,” a number that couldn’t possibly have pleased him. No mention of being captain.
The previous year, I had written a profile for The Post on the president’s lifelong love affair with baseball and his general borderline addiction to every game ever invented — soccer was his best sport at Yale, where he was a star center forward. That baseball card worried me, so I asked the proper authority at The Post whether I should keep it, return it, sell it to charity, whatever. They said: “Keep it. But never sell it.” Much as I enjoy the card, I wonder whether I would have picked a different option.
President Bush’s gift for personal connection, naturalness and self-deprecating warmth was extraordinary, as was wife Barbara’s, as many have noted. I’m certain I was never in his top million acquaintances, yet during one phone call he said, “Have you and Wendy seen any good movies lately?”
My thought, “Sir, isn’t there something else you should be doing?” Once the Gulf War began, he had a lot to do. And there was no more time for sportswriters.
Many serious people will have memories about this excellent yet somehow still modest man who, at every stage of his life, prepared himself for his nation’s highest office more thoroughly than perhaps any president before or since.
After Pearl Harbor, he enlisted on his 18th birthday and became the youngest aviator in the Navy. After military service, he made a fortune as a Texas oil man. Then, at 40, he turned to public service, including two terms as a Texas congressman, ambassador to the United Nations and later to China, as well as director of the CIA and then vice president under Ronald Reagan for eight years. Few men have respected expertise and thorough knowledge of institutions, policy and history more deeply.
Perhaps I met the manner more than the man. But I doubt they could be too dissimilar. For a lifetime, it’s hard to be a great deal different than we seem, even in the smallest details. During an interview in the Oval Office, I asked President Bush, since he was known as a slick glove man, whether he still knew where his old first baseman’s mitt was. He gave a strange little look, then opened a drawer of his desk.
“It’s right here,” he said, taking out his George McQuinn claw model. The glove was practically black from age but kept supple, oiled and in working condition. He pounded his fist in its pocket as so many of us have when we need to think about something — perhaps something difficult, probably not baseball.
I thought, then and now: “What a fine man. And what a great country.”
Correction: A previous version of this column said incorrectly that George W. Bush participated in a mixed-doubles tennis match with Jeb Bush, Chris Evert and Pam Shriver. Marvin Bush, not George, played in the match.
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