I have talked before about growing up in a politically active family. The first rally I remember attending was for Nixon in 1968 at Fort Lee High School. I was only three and a half, but my memory of it is vivid. The future President came close enough to shake my parents’ hands and tug at my wool hat. I was wearing a “Nixon’s The One” button. Yes, back then I was a Republican.
Politics taught me that there are opposing sides and winners and losers. It was kind of like playing team sports, but the consequences much more serious. I learned about ideology and how one’s beliefs fueled who they supported or with what political party they choose to align themselves. We had friends and relatives from both parties. That led to some heated debates at social gatherings, but it never ended relationships.
I recall my parents having very emotional disagreements with elected officials during mayor and council meetings, and then shaking hands in church, lamenting about the weather, or patronizing each other’s businesses. From where I sat, I saw a world where differences just made people interesting, not hated. And being involved in politics took me to some interesting places where I got to meet lots of interesting people. On the national scene, in addition to Richard Nixon, that included Gerald Ford, Bob Dole, and Ronald Reagan (I had to Google it, but yes, Bob Dole is still alive).
Not long after I graduated from college, my political views began to change, and I also decided to be a little more low-key in my activism. In my 30s I served my community through the non-profit sector as Vice President of Bergen County’s United Way. In that roll, I continued to meet lots of interesting people. In March 2002, that included Former President George H.W. Bush.
The Northern New Jersey Business Volunteer Council, in which I was involved, was honored as a Point of Light at a luncheon in New York City. President Bush was the keynote speaker. Because I had met all of the earlier Republican presidents in my lifetime, I thought I had to seize this opportunity. This was just six months after 9-11, so security was heightened. The former president was behind the head table, which sat on a low riser in the front of the Marriott Marque’s ballroom (which, by the way, can hold 2400 people for a sit-down lunch). Secret Service blocked every path to him.
While everyone was taking their seats, before the program was to begin, there was a lot of milling around. I was seated at a table with my boss, who had always said that it was better to ask for forgiveness than permission. With that in mind, I took a deep breath and just walked up to the head table, around the big, burly, scary Secret Service Agents, acting like I was supposed to be there, and found myself standing alongside George H.W. Bush.
There I stood patiently waiting for him to finish his conversation with another man – just like you would for anyone you were trying to network with at a luncheon. Mr. Bush noticed me and said hello. I told him who I was and why I was there and how much I appreciated what he created with the Points of Light Foundation. He was charming and gracious. And tall. That was my immediate reaction to seeing him in person. He was taller than I thought he would be.
He saw my camera and asked the man he had been speaking with to take our picture. He then told me to send him a copy of the photo so he could sign it and send it back. That photo and the letter that accompanied it, is framed and proudly displayed in my home office. I had a copy of the photo printed for my dad too and he had it framed on display in his home office as well.
Of course, I never told President Bush (or my dad) that I only voted for him once. Because I didn’t support his bid for re-election, didn’t mean I didn’t support all the good he had done since. Politics isn’t what it used to be. There was a time when you felt that even when people didn’t agree on how to solve problems, at the heart of their solutions was the desire to do what they thought was best for America.
Rest in peace Mr. Bush.