Close Encounters of the Presidential Kind

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were my classmates—or so I thought on two different occasions.  Hopefully that’s enough to hook you into reading the rest of this post because essentially it is just an old man’s stories of close encounters with presidents and presidential candidates.  Lately I’ve spent too much time thinking and writing about the Oklahoma Teachers Retirement System and, like many Americans, too much time watching news about our current president, so I need a break from doing real thinking. 

My first close encounter was in the spring of 1959 when, finishing my sixth grade year at Celia Clinton Elementary School in Tulsa, I took my first airplane trip, complete with propellers, rollaway staircase, full meals, coats and ties, and all that went with 1950’s air travel, to Washington, D. C. with my mother and brother.  My mother had written a wonderful essay about being thrifty, using her experience as a girl with her grandmother’s cistern, entitled “Saving for a Rainy Day”, and we entered it in my handwriting and name in a thrift essay contest sponsored by the national savings and loan association.  The essay won first place, and $50, in the local contest, and ultimately first place for elementary school students in the national contest where the prize was an all-expense paid trip to our nation’s capital for the student and one adult.  My brother Clayton got to tag along being the only time in our 70-year relationship I could meaningfully claim superiority.  Undoubtedly my participation in the Savings and Loan thrift essay contest contributed to the ultimate downfall of the S & L’s in the late 1980s and the attendant financial crisis.

Along with the high school and junior high winners, from Florida and Illinois I recall, we toured the usual sights, rode in the Cherry Blossom Parade, met our respective congressmen, mine being Page Belcher, and were supposed to meet then Vice President Richard Nixon.  Somewhere among our family archives is a photo of me at his desk; unfortunately, he was called away, by Rosemary Woods I suspect, to urgent business.  I trust the Savings and Loan industry continued the sponsorship of a thrift essay contest for many years, at least until its demise in the late 1980s, which saddened me due to my fond memories of the experience they had provided.

The following year, 1960, was memorable for Clayton and me as Boy Scouts from local Troup 37 getting to attend the 50th anniversary national scout jamboree in Colorado Springs that summer.  It was a memorable bus trip and adventure with 40 to 50 other scouts and adult leaders formed into a troop from the Tulsa area for two weeks of travel to/from and camping at the jamboree.  One special memory was watching then President Eisenhower’s motorcade parade slowly through the thousands of scouts gathered to greet him.  Somewhere in our family archives is a brief 8 mm film of that event taken by Clayton.  I’m not super anxious to locate that film because I think it also contains footage of me being boosted by other patrol members over the obstacle course wall so that my lack of wall-climbing prowess wouldn’t keep our patrol from receiving an award of excellence at the jamboree.

That fall of 1960 I was in the eighth grade and keenly interested in the presidential contest between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy.  My father was a Roosevelt Democrat, his father had been a Democratic County Commissioner for Washington County, so of course we were supporting Kennedy.  My parents had also recently acquired a laundromat that was located in the 800 block of South Sheridan and at which the four of us worked off and on to clean and maintain.  It was a good lesson in the relentless responsibilities of being a small business owner.  It was also located on the route taken by Richard Nixon’s motorcade from the Tulsa airport to the fairgrounds for a campaign event on Saturday, October 15 of that year.  My parents timed our Saturday cleaning stop at the laundromat to coincide, so along with many others lining both sides of Sheridan, I finally saw Richard Nixon in person.

I was a junior, I think in typing class fourth hour, on Friday, November 22, 1963, at Nathan Hale High School in Tulsa, when our principal announced the news from Dallas.

I was a college freshman “at a school over a thousand miles away from home at a place where I knew nobody, where I was alone and scared” (at least that’s how Senator Ted Cruz described our alma mater when he announced his presidential candidacy two years ago) standing outside with thousands of other students by the newly constructed, Yamasaki designed, building for the Woodrow Wilson School of International Studies as then President Lyndon Johnson spoke at its dedication on May 11, 1966.  I don’t remember any of Johnson’s speech but I do remember feeling unsettled seeing the students, kept back across the street, who were holding signs of protest against the Vietnam War.

Following Senator Eugene McCarthy’s stunning, close second place finish in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, New York Senator Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy for President in Washington, D. C. on Saturday, March 16, 1968.  He then flew back to New York’s LaGuardia Airport and walked past a college junior who was waiting, with a $45 student half-fare ticket, to see if he could get on the American Airlines nonstop flight to Tulsa to be with his best friend for life over spring vacation.  March 31, Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek re-election; April 4, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis; and June 6, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles.

On Wednesday, September 13, 1972, along with thousands at Broad and Chestnut in Philadelphia in the shadow of William Penn atop city hall, I listened to Senator George McGovern, the Democratic nominee for president that year, at his campaign stop in Philadelphia after being introduced by Senator Ted Kennedy.  Surely school was out at West Philadelphia High School where I taught math.

I can’t think of any close encounters with President Ford so will just go with having watched Chevy Chase on SNL many times.

Nor did I have any close encounters with President Carter, though I was a Carter delegate to the 1980 Tulsa County Democratic Convention (don’t recall for sure but think I was a Fred Harris, not Carter, delegate to the 1976 convention) and visited his presidential library while attending the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta where our son Ethan competed as a member of the USA volleyball team.  My brother Clayton took our father to attend one of President Carter’s Sunday School classes in Plains, Georgia some years after that; pretty sure Clayton has their books President Carter autographed.

I surprised Linda in the early 1980’s with a getaway to New Orleans for her birthday weekend in June.  While there we encountered a street vendor who took our photo standing next to a life-sized cardboard cut-out of President Ronald Reagan.  I kept that photo taped to my office door at Tulsa Junior College for many years, causing students and faculty to be duly impressed with my close relationship to the President.

The build up to the Persian Gulf War under President George Bush (41) in 1990 led to me, as Chair of the first Tulsa City Council and stand-in for Mayor Rodger Randle, bringing words of thanks and encouragement on behalf of their fellow citizens to a local reserve unit that was deploying to the Middle East from Tulsa; I never will forget the look on the faces of those young men and women who were poised to be separated from their families for an unknown future.  That’s as close as I got to Bush 1; except my friend Brenda Burkett has sent this photo which puts me within two degrees of separation: 

At my 15th year Nathan Hale High School Class of ‘65 Reunion several hundreds of us (we were 800 strong originally) were in the Hale auditorium for a group program and recognitions.  I remember only two parts of that program; one was that I was called to the stage along with a few others and we were each given an award, mine, a wooden middle finger, was something like “class politician” because I had recently been elected to the Tulsa School Board.  The other was that our emcee called our attention to a classmate who had just arrived with her husband and introduced her as the new “first lady of Arkansas”.  Being a bit of a political junky that made an impression, though the classmate was one of most in attendance whom I really didn’t remember, or never knew even in school.

Twelve years later it’s February, 1992 and I’m casually following the contenders for the Democratic Party’s nomination when Bill Clinton vaults into the spotlight with an unexpected second place finish in the New Hampshire primary.  I knew he was governor of Arkansas, thought he was first elected in 1978, and that his wife Hillary was my age.  The light went on in my brain realizing that a high school classmate of mine could become the next first lady of the United States.  I even told this to a few friends and believed it for several days until learning that Hillary Rodham Clinton had grown up in the Chicago area, not Tulsa.  With a little research I found that Bill Clinton indeed was elected governor in 1978, served the two-year term, but was defeated by Republican Frank White in 1980.  Then Clinton re-captured the governorship from White in 1982 and was re-elected every two years thereafter until winning the Presidential election in 1992.  My classmate was Gay Daniels who was married to Frank White during this time.

In August, 1993, Tulsa hosted the National Governors Conference.  President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore both addressed the attendees and many Tulsans, including me, at our Maxwell Convention Center.  Clinton Tulsa Speech, 1993

It was during the 1996 election year, late spring I think, when along with others from Tulsa I attended a national housing conference in Washington, D. C.  As a city councilor a couple of years earlier, I had helped established Home Ownership Tulsa as a coalition to promote homeownership and the improvement of Tulsa neighborhoods.  The conference was an opportunity to share experiences and strategies with others around the country and to learn what the Clinton administration had in mind with its newly announced National Homeownership Strategy.  At the conference it was confirmed that President Clinton would speak and that we should arrive for that session early enough to pass through security.  Following his speech we were delighted to learn that he was going to “work the rope line” and shake hands with us.  As he was getting closer to me I had no thought of saying anything, rather just wanted to courteously take his hand and then let him get on to the next attendee.  However, being the consummate people person that he is, when he took my hand and looked me in the eyes he noticeably paused, awaiting what I would say.  So I rose to the occasion and uttered “mmm…mmm…mmm”, then he went on to the next person.    Just as my thrift essay in 1958 contributed to collapse of the Savings and Loan industry and the financial crisis of the late 1980’s, undoubtedly my advocacy of homeownership in Tulsa in the 1990’s contributed to the subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent collapse of our economy into the Great Recession of 2008-2009.

Crushed, I lived with regret for many years that I had failed in my one opportunity to converse with a President.  My failure was enhanced when our son Ethan in fact had lively conversations with both President and First Lady Clinton at the White House following the 1996 Olympics.  Therefore, when, sometime in the mid-2000’s, I noticed three black Suburban’s pulling into the back parking lot of the Hotel Del Coronado where Linda and I were staying for a credit union conference, I knew somebody important had arrived.  Indeed, I learned it was Bill Clinton, there to speak to a group of Japanese businessmen for one of those large honoraria I assume.  So I staked out my position by the hotel courtyard to encounter him when he would leave an hour or so later.  Successfully I caught view of him, of course surrounded by dark suits with earpieces, talking on his cell phone, and as I moved closer for actual engagement was abruptly stopped by a uniformed Coronado policeman.  I got to yell out “We voted for you, Bill” to which he gave me a thumbs up.  No regrets.

Like Bush 1, I had no real close encounter with Bush 2, so my best shot is that the day the invasion of Iraq began in 2003 was also the day my parents committed to move to Inverness Village, which saw them through their final years in comfort and dignity.  Also I watched the second tower collapse on 9/11/2001 with a few others in the Mayor’s conference room outside her office.

One of the many disadvantages of living in a totally red state is the Electoral College “winner takes all” system causes candidates to ignore us.  When I visit with my Iowa cousins I am jealous about the attention they get.  In 2008, at least neighboring Missouri was in play so Linda and I headed to Springfield for a Barak Obama campaign rally on Saturday, November 1, 2008, before the election the following Tuesday.  It was an electric outdoor, late evening event made more fun by finding friends Penny and Joe Joseph and Marilyn Hill and Emily Major also there to share with in the excitement.  Here he is in Springfield that night.

He narrowly lost Missouri to Senator John McCain but the overall result was amazing history for our nation and the world.

My 2016 election encounter with Hillary Clinton is documented in the photo above, taken in 2015, for which identifying the location will win you a free lunch with me and hearing more of my stories.  In the 30 seconds I had with her while the photo was taken I tried to tell her that I thought she was my high school classmate as I’ve explained above.  I expect she had me placed on her Secret Service “watch list”.

When Donald Trump became the real deal throughout 2016 we learned that he was in the same college cohort as my brother Clayton, meaning Class of 1968, that he attended Fordham University in New York City as an undergraduate, and that he subsequently earned a degree from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  I did the math and figured if he graduated from Fordham in 1968 and then enrolled in the Wharton School MBA program in Philadelphia that he was likely on the Penn campus while I was pursuing a Master of Science in Education at Penn from September, 1969 through completion in August, 1971, and even took a course in accounting for non-majors at the Wharton School in 1971.  When I did a focused search about his collegiate education this week I learned that his degree from Penn’s Wharton School was his undergraduate degree in economics so he was gone before Linda and I arrive in Philly.

Again, as always, lunch is on me for the first to ID the location of the photo above.

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