Jogging with President George H.W. Bush
Conversations about family, sports and Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing’
President George H.W. Bush adored the outdoors. He was an adventurer who parachuted out of planes when he was 80, 85, 90. He loved baseball, pitching horseshoes, sailing, walking, running.
I used to jog with the 41st president as a White House correspondent for The Dallas Morning News.
I was never quite sure how I made the cut among the rotating reporters he included. Sometimes there would be four of us accompanying him, sometimes only one or two. I was the only African-American reporter in the group. I surmised that because I worked for a Texas newspaper, he just enjoyed having someone with whom to catch up on Texas gossip.
Jogging with the president became enough of a thing, and an unpredictable thing, that I kept some running gear in a drawer at our Washington, D.C., bureau. I always wanted to be prepared for that unexpected call from Bush’s cheerful personal assistant, Patty Presock:
“Hi, Kevin. The president is wondering if you’d like to go jogging with him today?”
— Kevin Merida (@meridak) December 3, 2018
Bush was in excellent shape as president, and he invited reporters along because he enjoyed our company, I believe. He understood that we were still going to write tough stories about his administration when warranted and hold his presidency accountable. He had an appreciation for the role journalism plays in our democracy (not that he always agreed with the journalism produced about him).
While Bush famously called for a “kinder, gentler nation,” he could never outrun a racially explosive 1988 campaign ad supporters produced to depict his Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis as soft on crime. The ad, which featured the mug shot of a convicted black murderer who raped a white woman while benefiting from a Massachusetts weekend furlough program, helped Bush get elected president.
What I learned about Bush from jogging with him was how much he relished talking about everyday life, the ease with which he turned off the formalities and pressures of the presidency. He was eager to talk family and curious about books, movies, music, sports. And gossip. Those were the most common categories of discussion.
I remember asking the president about Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing shortly after the movie debuted to critical acclaim and commercial success. That 1989 film, which explored racial tensions in a Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood, is now considered a seminal achievement and perhaps Lee’s best work. Bush initially thought I was referencing Mississippi Burning, another race-focused film loosely based on the investigation into the 1964 murders of three young civil rights workers.
But the more I talked about the genius and complexities of Do the Right Thing, about characters such as Sal the pizzeria owner and Radio Raheem, who blasts the music of Public Enemy from his boombox, the more Bush became captivated. This was a movie before its time — about police brutality, violence as a response and the shifting demographics of a neighborhood. Bush said he wanted to see it; I don’t know if he ever did.
What I do know is he was clearly interested in discovering the work of a young black filmmaker who was just beginning to make waves in the world.
Running along Hains Point, eyeing the Potomac River, Bush seemed to be at whatever peace could be achieved in that hour not consumed by his struggles with Congress, the decision to invade Panama or some other presidential burden.
Whether you golf, play pickup hoops (as I do), belong to a softball league or have some other recreational passion, the pursuit of sports as leisure feeds the adult spirit. It’s like a magical tonic. Perhaps that is why Bush wanted to stay as active as he could for as long as he could. An irony of Bush’s public life is he was mocked as a “wimp,” a “patrician” whose New England-Yale pedigree somehow made him less manly when actually he exuded virility.
In some ways, the mourning of a president’s death is a national act of self-assessment. What should we say about ourselves now? Kinder and gentler, we’re not.
The space that sports can occupy, even recreationally, was never lost on Bush. Not that sports crushes the troubles of the world; sometimes sports just helps us to manage them. I remember once riding in the presidential limo en route to our jogging location (which admittedly was a surreal experience). Bush offered his jogging partners bottles of water from a cooler. And as the limo and accompanying Secret Service procession rolled along behind us, Bush took note of the joggers in Rock Creek Park and how he wished he could be among them. It was a moment of longing, of wanting to be just another guy running in a park on a beautiful day. But alas, there was too much wooded, shrouded area for the Secret Service to ever permit that.
Bush let the moment linger, until the Rock Creek Park joggers were out of sight. And then it was back to being what he was: the protected guide of a nation. He would still be able to get his run in, lose himself in thought and casual conversation with us. He’d find a measure of happiness in just that.
Rest in peace, Mr. President.