Hey, Look Them Over
Over the past 60 years, finding anyone in our nation who didn’t know what a U.S. President looked and sounded like would have been difficult. Since the 1950s, presidents have been major television stars. They don’t need to invent creative ways to appear on the tube as lesser publicity seekers do; networks clamor for the opportunity to feature them.
The television moguls know what they’re doing as they vie for viewers. The American people, no matter what their political persuasions, long have been interested in what our top politicians look and sound like. Before television, when I was in junior high school, Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft, Republican candidate for President, scheduled a stop in my hometown. It was such a big deal in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, that the schools were let out so we youngsters would have a chance to get a glimpse of the great man. The movie theater where he spoke was packed beyond capacity. I couldn’t get in, although I did see Taft make his entrance into the building.
Taft’s presidential bid failed, so I couldn't claim I’d seen a man in the flesh who had occupied the White House. That didn’t happen for another 35 years.
No matter how familiar a President becomes to television viewers, actually seeing the real person seems important to many citizens. President Obama recently spoke at the University of Michigan commencement ceremony in the “Big House” football stadium in Ann Arbor. Event organizers printed 80,000 tickets, and demand exceeded the supply.
Mr. Obama will be back in Michigan on June 7. Kalamazoo Central High School won a nationwide contest to get the President as its graduation speaker. The inner city public school topped the nation with its outstanding record of academic improvement through several creative programs. School officials changed the graduation date to give their Class of 2010 what they called a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to see and hear a President.
I thought about trying to get a ticket until information on the demand appeared. Central usually attracts about 2,500 spectators at a graduation. This year’s event is scheduled at the local hockey arena, which holds 4,000. If it stays there, grads for the first time in history will be limited in the number of family members and friends they can host. There is talk of moving the event to Western Michigan University’s basketball arena to squeeze in another 1,000 people. Mention also has been made of moving to the university’s football stadium, where 27,000 could be admitted. If that happens, I might try for a ticket.
Why would I bother? Well, there aren’t a whole lot of average Americans who can say they’ve seen a sitting President in real life. Something about the possibility of joining that small number is intriguing. I have seen a First Lady and a former President at close range, and those memories remain vivid.
First Lady Barbara Bush passed within a few feet of me as she walked down a corridor in a Salt Lake City hotel. She was on the way to a meeting room across the hall from one where I was attending a Forest Service conference. She was there to give a speech to a group of Republican supporters. I was in the hallway having a smoke, and I stayed for her appearance when a Secret Service man told me she would be coming.
Mrs. Bush was known as a great lady. When I saw her, she radiated charm and good humor as she passed by. She nodded to onlookers in the corridor and smiled at everybody. I was clapping as hard as I could, as were others, so I’d like to think she smiled at me, but that’s a stretch.
A few years later, the annual Marie Lombardi Charity Golf Tournament was held at the Menominee Falls Country Club, about a mile from our home in Wisconsin. Proceeds went to cancer research in memory of the famous Green Bay Packers coach, Vince Lombardi. Many political, sports, and show business luminaries participated, with heavy representation by present and former Packers and Chicago Bears football stars.
I walked the mile from our home to the country club. Seeing no reason not to, I slipped under a rope near the entrance just in time to see former President Gerald Ford, escorted by several young men, pass slowly within a yard of me as he headed for the scorer’s tent. Mr. Ford was smiling and waving to everybody on both sides of the roped-off pathway to the tent. I’d like to claim he waved at me, but I’ll settle for stating he at least “waved near me.”
Mr. Ford had been out of office for several years when I saw him. It was a good day for celebrity sightings of others who had joined the ranks of retirees. I saw “Mr. Perfect,” Bart Starr, the former Packers quarterback, hit a perfect drive long and down the middle. Dick Butkus, former great Bears linebacker, crunched a fairway wood that appeared to travel about 300 yards. Years earlier, Butkus would have been more interested in crunching Starr.
When Mr. Obama comes to town, I think sneaking in to see him will be out of the question. I’m hoping the ceremony is moved to the football field to give me a chance for a ticket.