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Reminiscences of the presidents I met in real time

Uploaded: Feb 27, 2023
As 98-year-old former President Jimmy Carter lies on his bed, hospice by his side, I thought back and recalled the first and only time I met him years ago. And that led me to remembering other presidents I saw in person my years as a journalist.

I’ll start with Carter, himself. My mother once told me that frequently you can tell how smart a person is by the intensity in his or her eyes. When former President Carter entered a Stanford classroom in the mid-80s, yes, I noticed his alert eyes, because they twinkled as he scanned the room, smiling away. I was one of several journalists sitting there for his mini press conference.

Within seconds, I knew I was not watching him on TV, where he had appeared to me like a folksy peanut farmer, who should be dressed in blue jeans. But in this classroom, he was different. He was very alert, quick to respond, answered every question. His demeanor was that of an honest, caring person. I sat up and listened intently, because he was so bright and articulate.

John F. Kennedy was the president I saw -- at his inauguration. It was a very cold day in Washington, D.C. My husband and I drove in from Arlington, VA, where we had a small apartment. Virginians don't like the snow much – and they didn't know how to drive in it, so many inaugural invitees stayed home. The snow-covered roads didn’t even challenge my husband, who was from Chicago.

We easily parked and found a place where we could stand for the ceremony, just behind the several rows of chairs next to the stage. I was clad in my heaviest coat, scarf and woolen gloves. The wind was strong and stinging. When poet Robert Frost got up to introduce JFK, his papers fell to the ground, and Frost went down after them. It took him a good minute and I worried about this aging from Ripton VT, but his introduction went fine.

When it was time for Kennedy to give his inaugural address, the president-to-be took off his coat and scarf and stood there in a gray suit. I shivered and thought it takes a lot of attributes to be strong, , and standing in the cold 20-degree weather for almost an hour, wearing just a business suit certainly qualified him as a man who could brave the freezing temperature.

When Kennedy delivered the words, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," we all applauded. It challenged every American to think of others in their country, a message that has worn well over the decades.

Once he had taken the oath of office, the group on the stage walked into the Capitol building for an elegant luncheon. Yes, Jackie was wearing her pillbox hat. My husband and I walked down the street and bought hot dogs from a vendor – with relish! The streets were filled with the amplified sounds of Handel's "Royal Fireworks Music." The ceremony and parade that followed seemed so dignified, so elegant. This was indeed a refined couple.

I was living in Sunnyvale when Lyndon Johnson's official inauguration was held. I watched on TV the goings-on, recalling what happened four years earlier. The music was still pouring out of the loudspeakers on the streets – but this time it was "Yellow Rose of Texas.”

I was working for the Mercury News as a member of the Editorial Board when I saw Ronald Reagan, presidential candidate. As the three of us staffers drove up 101 for our appointment at the Fairmont Hotel, we practiced our questions – “I will ask this and if he doesn’t fully answer…. The editorial writer next to me said, Then I will rephrase the question and tell him we hope he will answer it in detail.” That planning didn’t work out too well.

Lyn Nofziger, Reagan’s campaign aide, met us in the lobby, and we went to Reagan's suite. The presidential candidate came from his room, wearing a striped white shirt with his initials on the pocket. His face was a healthy pink, and he looked quite relaxed.

"How do you feel about building more nuclear bombs?" we asked. "Well, Nancy and I were just talking about that yesterday, and we don't have an answer yet," he replied. "And how do you feel about limited nuclear war, relying on fewer and less powerful bombs?" I asked.

"That reminds me of the walk we took in our garden last week when we saw a garden snake in the middle of our path and then watched him disappear into the flower patch." I wondered if there was some analogy or hidden message I was missing.

Just then, Nancy walked into the room dressed in a red suit, and hat. (Nancy was shorter than I expected but her head was a bit out of proportion to her body. I wondered how the movie camera men photographed her in proportion.) They hugged, then together left the room for a good eight minutes of our 45-minute time allotment. "She must be going for a long trip?" I asked Nofziger. "Oh no, just overnight," he answered.

When I saw the Clinton family, Bill and Hillary were at Stanford visiting Chelsea. The daughter's hair was frizzier then, but it was apparent she would become a very attractive woman. Bill and Hillary were smiling and waving.

After that, I saw Hillary standing on Air Force One, in Johannesburg, South Africa airport, going down the ramp to meet Nelson Mandela for his inauguration. While there, I had a chance to visit Bishop Desmond Tutu at his home where he was scheduled for a press conference.

No other reporters came, so I began by asking him whether American universities’ efforts to divest helped South Africa. “(without divestment), it couldn’t have happened without their help,” Tutu replied.

Tutu took us out back where he entertained my son, Kent, and his wife, who were with me. Kent was 6’5”, tall, blond, and wearing a red tee shirt; the bishop was 5’ 7” or so, wearing his red cassock and had black hair. Tutu climbed up on a small brick wall surrounding a pond and turned to Kent, saying, “I am trying to reach your level so we can talk.” My son replied, “Sir, I will never reach your level.”

The last president I saw in real time was Bill Clinton, along with Hillary and Chelsea, when the parents were visiting their daughter at Stanford. It was a happy, smiling family occasion, and Bill said a couple of words to the assembled. It was a nice moment, and updates my presidential live memory book.

Democracy.
What is it worth to you?

Comments

Posted by Frederick Willis, a resident of Downtown North,
on Feb 28, 2023 at 7:04 am

Frederick Willis is a registered user.

Curious how many old time Palo Altans remember President Eisenhower and his wife Mamie passing through Palo Alto on the train during the mid-1950s.

People were lined up at the California Avenue station to greet him and President Eisenhower along with Mamie Eisenhower stepped out on the balcony of the last car to wave to the crowd.

And then around 1960, President Charles De Gaulle of France was riding in a motorcade up Page Mill Road to visit the recently-built Hewlett-Packard facility 'on the hill'. We watched it from the playground of the old Mayfield elementary school.

Other Palo Alto remembrances include the massive flood that occured during the winter of 1956 and the Black Mamba snake that allegedly escaped from its owner and had the entire city and the PAPD on alert for its whereabouts.

Other than these incidents, not much happens in Palo Alto of any major noteworthy attention.


Posted by Livia Delgado, a resident of Mountain View,
on Feb 28, 2023 at 8:05 am

Livia Delgado is a registered user.

I think more people would have an opportunity to see a U.S. president if the presidents flew coach on a regular commercial airlines rather than Air Force One which is very costly to operate and maintain.

My great-grandfather once met President Coolidge while he was working as a porter on the Union Pacific railroad.

I think Andrew Jackson was the first American president to travel by train and FDR the first U.S. president to travel via airplane.

Someday in the future later generations will most likely witness the first U.S. president to travel into outer space for an intergalactic summit meeting or planetary peace accord.


Posted by Pierce Donnelly, a resident of Woodside,
on Feb 28, 2023 at 12:51 pm

Pierce Donnelly is a registered user.

Prior to and during the Civil War era, Sundays at the White House were often reserved for American citizens who wished to meet in person with the POTUS via appointment or walk-in appearance.

Following the Civil War and Lincoln's assassination, the practice of casually meeting with a sitting U.S. president was terminated.

With a current U.S. population of over 365 million today, this former opportunity to meet with the president would also be considered impractical and a heightened security risk.

America was more manageable when we had fewer people living here and creating fewer social and politically related problems.


Posted by Samantha White, a resident of another community,
on Feb 28, 2023 at 3:36 pm

Samantha White is a registered user.

At Disneyland there is a presentation called "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln."

It is very lifelike and many animatronic improvements have been made since its introduction in 1965.

Since most American citizens will never have an opportunity to either meet or physically witness an actual U.S. president in real time or in life, we now have the animation technology to re-create any U.S. president past or present.

Another option would be to utilize holograms which have also been used to re-create concerts of performers who have since passed.

Given today's modern technological advances in computerized animation, I don't think it's absolutely necessary to communicate with an actual person anymore, let alone physically interact with them on an earthly plane.


Posted by Mike Dugan, a resident of South of Midtown,
on Feb 28, 2023 at 3:59 pm

Mike Dugan is a registered user.

"Other Palo Alto remembrances include the massive flood that occured during the winter of 1956 and the Black Mamba snake that allegedly escaped from its owner and had the entire city and the PAPD on alert for its whereabouts."
@Frederick Willis...
That major Palo Alto flood occured in 1955 and prompted the city to reinforce its creeks in 1956.

The Black Mamba incident did create some concern among some residents who feared that their pets had perished due to the snake and the PAPD actually established a Black Mamba Task Force to respond to any reported sightings.

No snake was ever discovered but there were some humorous incidents like adolescents tossing black rubber snakes onto telephone lines and the PAPD reportedly opened fire upon a coiled black hose that was lying in someone's back yard.

I imagine few Palo Altans recall this incident but it was being reported on all of the major local news channels (7-5-4-2) including the daily Palo Alto newspaper.


Posted by Jennifer, a resident of another community,
on Feb 28, 2023 at 5:41 pm

Jennifer is a registered user.

I physically witnessed a US president, but I was too young to remember. I saw JFK in June 1963. The motorcade was on El Cajon Blvd. in San Diego, and my dad worked on El Cajon, so our family gathered. I remember watching the motorcade in Texas on tv one year, and I told my dad it would be cool to see a presidential motorcade, especially a popular president. He told me I did see one, and my mom said I was excited to see the president.


Posted by Kendra Locke, a resident of Community Center,
on Mar 1, 2023 at 8:01 am

Kendra Locke is a registered user.

I've never had the opportunity to actually witness or meet a U.S. president (past or present) in person but when you come right down to it, the POTUS, the Pope, and/or the King/Queen of England are pretty much the most recognizable people in the world and perhaps the most noteworthy in terms of public recognition.

With the possible exception of highly recognizable Hollywood celebrities, pop musicians and professional sports stars, no one really cares or takes the time to acknowledge lesser-known world leaders and dignitaries except maybe for Putin who is in the news everyday.


Posted by Jeremy Cline, a resident of Atherton,
on Mar 1, 2023 at 8:55 am

Jeremy Cline is a registered user.

In many ways, the President of the United States is the most important person in the world because he is universally acknowledged as 'the leader of the free world.' Other heads of state cannot claim this unique distinction and are second-tier leaders at best.

As for House of Windsor family members, they are more along the lines of symbolic celebrities and are of no real importance to the American citizenry except for those who enjoy tabloid news.

Lastly, world religious leaders are only relevant to those who adhere to the specific doctrines of their respective faiths.

Relevance is the key to noteworthy global recognition and countless world leaders from other countries are not worth acknowledging as important.


Posted by Lorilee Prescott, a resident of Los Altos,
on Mar 1, 2023 at 12:33 pm

Lorilee Prescott is a registered user.

Interesting thread. Looking back, when I was in grade school during the early 1960s we had our Weekly Readers and could identify many of the key world leaders at the time.

There was John F. Kennedy (USA), Harold MacMillan (UK), Charles DeGaulle (France), Konrad Adenauer (West Germany), Fidel Castro (Cuba), Mao (PRC), and Nikita Kruschev (USSR). All of the other world leaders were seemingly considered irrelevant and perhaps rightfully so.

Flash forward to 2022 and onwards...my grandaughter is in the 5th grade and as part of her geography studies, she had to identify various countries around the globe

She successfully identified all 50 U.S. states, all of the Latin American countries, and most of the western European countries. With the exception of Egypt, Morocco, Kenya, and South Africa, she could not identify any of the other countries on the African continent and I told her this was not extremely important because many of the African countries are politically unstable and prone to revolutions on a daily basis.

With the exception of Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania, the same can be said of the various island countries south of SE Asia...like who cares?

BTW...she got an B+ for her efforts and knowledge of world geography.


Posted by Bert Jacobs, a resident of Mountain View,
on Mar 3, 2023 at 8:10 am

Bert Jacobs is a registered user.

Though we are limited & restricted by our 'real time' on Earth, some U.S. presidents and vice-presidents would be far more interesting to encounter or meet than others.

IMO Gerald Ford would probably rank kind of low compared with other U.S. presidents that either preceded or followed him.

And the same could probably be said of VPs such as Dick Cheney, Walter Mondale, Spiro Agnew, Nelson Rockefeller, Hubert Humphrey, and Kamala Harris..all forgettable VPs at best, regardless of party affiliation as none of them ever had or has the vast voter support needed to become an American president.


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