When President George H. W. Bush Keynoted an American Experiment Annual Dinner

George H. W. Bush keynoted Center of the American Experiment’s 2002 Annual Dinner.  I had wanted him to keynote one of our big affairs ever since he had lost the presidency to Bill Clinton in 1992, but many conservatives had been upset with him, particularly for that loss, so we waited until right-side atmospherics in Minnesota changed sufficiently before inviting him.

I sensed that moment had come when Bush spoke at a political fundraiser someplace in town around 2000 (for Norm Coleman, if I recall correctly) as he was received warmly by the crowd.  So, we invited him for April 2002 and all went great that night at the old Radisson South in Bloomington.  Attendance was strong, despite some spring snow, and I remember coming away thinking even more certainly that all had been forgiven about Bush’s loss of the White House a decade earlier.  In part, I thought this was the case – at the risk of sacrilege on my part – because he recently had given his son (so to speak) to the country as president.  Conservatives resonated to “W’” victory.

We knew 41 couldn’t say anything terribly provocative that evening at the risk of causing heartburn for 43, and he didn’t.  Although his explanation of the security reasons why “W” had not flown back to Washington on 9/11, immediately after the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked seven months earlier, was forceful and convincing.  I very much enjoyed the elder Bush’s time at the podium and the crowd did as well.

In addition to what might be described as the comfortableness of those remarks, I still think of that annual dinner as our sweetest.  It’s a strange adjective, perhaps, for such an occasion, but one I always come back to.  Three modest “events,” if they be called that, all happening in the 45 minutes or so before the dinner began, were main reasons.

One resulted from the Secret Service having been quite explicit that we needed to put up expensive black curtains in various places so that hotel guests and others wouldn’t see him or know where he was.  But there had been a wedding at the hotel a short time earlier and no flimsy cloth was going to keep Bush from eluding it and offering congratulations to the thrilled new husband and wife and their families.

I don’t recall the order of all three moments, but another was in the green room, where about six of us, were chatting with Bush.  As arranged with his staff days earlier, at a designated time I was to say something like, “Mr. President, permit us to take our leave so you can collect your thoughts.”  To which he said, with the kind of self-effacement truly confident people have, “Ah, I don’t have any thoughts.”  We departed nonetheless.

The third moment involved our then-11-year-old daughter Nicole, who was attending her first annual dinner, chaperoned by my mother, brother, and sister who were in town for the occasion.  I had told the four of them earlier that day that if they were at a certain spot at a certain time, they would have a decent chance to meet Bush, if only for seconds.

Well, they were, and they did – though Nicole refused to speak to him.  This was not wonderful.  But there he was, the former president of the United States, all tuxedoed-up, leaning over and earnestly trying to engage a reluctant little kid in conversation.  Just what you’d expect from the most kindly of grandfathers, who doubled as one of the most decent and accomplished men ever to lead the nation.

A photo of what came to be wonderful, thanks to H. W. is about two feet away as I write.