A few days after President George H. W. Bush lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton I got a call from a person who said she was calling from the White House. She asked me if I could attend a ceremony coming up in a few weeks at which President Bush would be awarding a medal to Will Baker, the President of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for his leadership in cleaning up the Bay.
Given the friends, I had at the time and some of them still kicking to this day who would make such a crank call, I immediately laughed and asked the woman if she knew who she was calling. She said, of course, I said, sure you do. She said we get this all the time, just call back to this number, and you’ll see it really is the White House. I did. She was legit. I got the date – I already knew the place – and the time and gave her social security numbers for myself and my photographer and we were now official invitees of the President of the United States for a White House function.
The next day I was in a Sears Outlet store to pick up their ad copy for the next issue of my newspaper, and I spotted a rack that proclaimed “Red Dot Sale” for a wall full of men’s suits. Browsing through the rack, I found a fine dark blue suit in just my size, but not being familiar with the tag pricing techniques of major stores, I had no clue as to what the price was for the originally priced suit of $179 would be now that it was on sale with a Red Dot. Thus, I took the suit to the cashier and learned that after she went through several steps that followed the price reductions, the price was ten bucks. That was a deal for me!
The day of the big event arrived, and ace photographer Patrick Pena and I arrived at the White House and were processed through the Secret Service security entrance, ushered over to the Executive Office Building and into a large auditorium. In that location, some routine awards for other events were held. Then our designated White House Press Office aide took us over to the Press Room, past the Vice President’s Office – where I could imagine the bag man showing up with cash for Vice President Agnew, down the hallway and could see the National Security Adviser’s Office and swore I could hear Ollie North’s shredding machine.
We were now in the press conference room – which was built over top of the former White House swimming pool where previous president skinny dipped, which was pretty tame stuff compared to what the incoming President Clinton would carry on in the Oval Office. Our Press Office guardian told us to stay close to her as she didn’t want us to be culled from the herd when it was time to go to the East Room.
A few minutes later, she guided us out with the rest of the herd, and we flocked into the White House – right through the front door, not a back entrance, but the actual front door just like you see on TV. In the lobby, an Asian guy with a yellow jacket was playing a nice tune on a Grand Piano.
We were led into the East Room, which really is on the East Side of the White House and ushered up onto risers to enable us to get great photos of the President and First Lady handing out the medal to the awardee. At that point, I was elbowed by a little old lady – well, she was little, and she was old, but she handled herself more like a linebacker than a Lady. I immediately recognized Helen Thomas – who at the time was the oldest living member of the press and looked it. She was such a legend, they had her bronzed when she kicked the bucket. She hollered to another Press Office aide “Is this where you want me, sonny?” She managed to make it through the rest of the ceremony without knocking me off the riser. (Continued below ad)
I was really happy to get such great shots of President and Mrs. Bush, and in a few minutes the ceremonies were over, and it was time to get some free shrimp.
While I was talking to our newly elected Congressman Wayne Gilchrest, Pat tapped me on the shoulder and told me some Republican kid who says he worked in the White House was throwing out all of the press, and we had to go. I told Congressman Gilchrest that it was too bad, I wasn’t going to be able to get his photo with Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Will Baker. No politician will ever be denied hamming it up with anyone who might make him look good in a glamour photo, so he told the White House intern to get lost, Pat and I were with him.
Guarding us closely, the Congressman led us into the State Dining Room where we got to partake of the big spread laid out on the table in the middle of the room, including some particularly good spiced shrimp and took the photo of Baker and Gilchrest with a painting of Old Abe Lincoln in the background.
No one seemed to notice my ten-dollar suit, or if they did, had no complaint about it, nor did it unravel.
President Bush had just lost his job a few weeks before, but instead of hitting the golf links, he continued to carry out his schedule and gave me the chance to take his photo and enjoy some government shrimp. For the record, I have never been invited back to the White House – they must have counted the shrimp. – Ken Rossignol