On behalf of President Bush, I would like to invite you to a luncheon at the White House on Tuesday, June 13, 1989.
It’s not every day someone gets a letter from the President of the United States. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if this was legit or not. After all, Ralph Dunagin, my partner at The Orlando Sentinel, wasn’t past pulling a fast one on me.
Being an editorial cartoonist, I’ve received all kinds of mail, love mail, hate mail, and everything in between including if-I-see-you-on-the-street-I’ll kill-you mail. But the envelope did have the White House as the return address, so I took the letter seriously.
The invite had gone out to a handful of cartoonists, including Jeff MacNelly, The Chicago Tribune, Paul Conrad, The Los Angeles Times, Tony Auth, The Philadelphia Enquirer, Patrick Oliphant, Universal Press Syndicate, David Seavey, USA Today, Mike Lane, Baltimore Sun, plus a few others. I was more intimidated by their presence than by the leader of the free world. These cartoonists had won numerous Pulitzers. What the heck was I doing there?
We met at the Northwest Gate on Pennsylvania Avenue at 11:15 a.m. with photo identification as per instructions. By today’s standards, security was pretty easy. After a short time at the guardhouse, we were led into a small meeting room in the West Wing. The President entered without much fanfare dipping his hand into a bag of potato chips. Lunch was tuna sandwiches. We spent the next few minutes crunching chips and shaking hands. He was taller than I expected, easy going, friendly and unassuming, like he’d known us all along, like we were all buddies. Not a small thing when you’re in a room full of poison pens and they’re all aimed at you.
When lunch began, I grabbed a seat directly opposite his so I could catch every word.
So what was discussed? What earth-shattering issue is burned into my brain from that day? Honestly, my memory is fuzzy about the whole affair. But I do remember The Soviet Union was coming apart at that time, and we talked about that. Some of the cartoonists couldn’t resist slamming Vice President Dan Quayle who was the new punching bag for us. The President fiercely defended him. Both President Reagan and President Bush loved editorial cartoons, even though the drawings constantly savaged them.
Looking back, I was in a daze hoping to get through lunch without saying something stupid. Eat. Nod. Laugh. Keep your mouth shut. My usual M.O.
White House photographer, Michael Sargent came in and snapped a couple shots of the group. In the candid photo-I’m fifth down on the right-I look sufficiently zombie-like, head down in foxhole mode. I tell people that that was the look I was going for.
After the White House luncheon, I had about an hour to draw some rough sketches I needed for an interview with an Orlando TV station. To this day, I don’t know what happened to those sketches.
Years later in 1997, President Clinton fell down a flight of stairs while partying with popular golfer Greg Norman. In the same week, George H.W. Bush dove out of a plane and parachuted to the ground without injury. I drew a cartoon paralleling the two events, the old guy doing just fine, the younger one in a cast. A friend of the President’s asked for the original. The following week I received a nice note from 41 thanking me.
Over the weekend, when I heard about George H. W. Bush’s passing, the first thing I thought of was my short time as a White House guest. As a tribute To George H. W. Bush, I did the dignified thing. I promptly opened a bag of potato chips in his honor. In his downhome way, I feel certain that’s what he would’ve wanted.