How Many Presidents Have Crossed Your Path?
Since I'm writing this on Presidents Day, a rather silly, manufactured holiday, I hereby ask what might be a rather silly question of our readers:
How many presidents, or future presidents, or former presidents, have you met, or at least seen, in person?
As near as I can tell, my personal total (if you count seeing only at a distance) is five. But considering how many retired military and diplomatic types we have around here, I'm sure many out there can leave me in the dust.
My first presidential encounter came back - way back - in the 1948 campaign. Harry S. Truman was out to beat Republican challenger Thomas Dewey. He spent a lot of his time on a "whistlestop tour," and that's what brought him to our town of Carthage, in his home state of Missouri.
I would have been 5 or 6 when my dad took my brother and me down to trackside to let us witness this bit of history. I don't remember anything that Truman said as he stood on the back of a caboose and briefly addressed a big crowd of us gathered there before heading off to the next stop.
If he talked about foreign affairs, he surely would have said something about the Marshall Plan for European recovery from World War II, which was then brand-new - and which was the brainchild of Secretary of State George Marshall, who later retired to Pinehurst. The one thing I do remember about Truman was that he looked shorter than I expected - which seems a common experience when everyday folks run into celebrities.
Since I have no Eisenhower stories, we now advance to 1963. I'm finishing out my three-year Army enlistment at the National Security Agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., which gave some of my buddies and me opportunities to visit nearby Washington, D.C.
On one of those trips, we were walking along the National Mall when a helicopter went soaring overhead and settled down onto the South Lawn of the White House. We hurried over to the iron fence just in time to get a front-row view as President John F. Kennedy waved to us from a distance as he stepped down onto the grass.
I remember that this handsome young president walked stiffly, like one with back troubles. We had no idea that he was only a few months away from an appointment with destiny in Dallas.
No Lyndon Johnson sightings. But it was during the 1964 campaign that, as a college student and newspaper newcomer in Springfield, Mo., I witnessed an appearance by California Gov. Ronald Reagan, who had come to town to campaign for LBJ's opponent, Barry Goldwater. Reagan impressed me greatly, if only from a distance. I came away convinced that he had a national future of his own.
For a minor experience with Johnson's successor, Richard Nixon, fast-forward to a dozen years after his resignation, when he spoke at a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors that I attended in Washington.
Most of us initially had little interest in listening to this disgraced has-been. But he answered questions about foreign affairs with such impressive grasp of the issues, and without a note, that we ended up giving him a long standing ovation. And at a reception afterward, I got to meet him. He had a firm, friendly handshake.
Skip Gerald Ford, and we come to Jimmy Carter. In 1978, during a two-week seminar at the American Press Institute in Reston, Va., our group got to visit the White House. We sat around the Cabinet table for some briefings from aides. And then the president himself briefly entered to speak with us in person. I have a framed, signed photo of that session, but you can scarcely make me out in it.
Funny the things you remember. Not only was Carter shorter than I expected, but I was also struck with his blotchy complexion. He looked like a fair-skinned person who had spent too much time in the sun, presumably in Georgia peanut fields, and had to worry about skin cancer.
My last such experience came 20 years later at the Carter Center in Atlanta. After stepping out of a meeting to visit the bathroom, I ran into Carter in a hallway. He shook my hand, and I took the opportunity to tell him how much I admired all he had accomplished since leaving the White House. Fact is, he's been better as a former president than he ever was as president.
So there you have it. Five out of 44 means a little more than 10 percent of the presidents we've had so far in this republic. Not bad. But surely lots of you can beat that.
Steve Bouser is opinion editor of The Pilot. Contact him at (910) 693-2470 or by email at email@example.com.
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