A long flight to Boston, a slow drive to Portland, ME., where I walked the wet streets late at night looking for a bite to eat, thinking of the New England sea coast towns of The Perfect Storm. A friend had recommended a bed & breakfast, an old Victorian, where I got the least expensive third floor room and listened to the rain on the roof for a fitful night’s sleep. Up in the morning for the drive to Kennebunkport, a wealthy, and somewhat touristy, little coastal town near which President George H.W. Bush and his family – and the Secret Service – spend a portion of the year in a family compound surrounded on three sides by ocean.
President Bush was one of several prominent politicians of the late 20th century who generously sat for interviews to be included in our documentary about Sen. Alan Simpson. Bush’s participation wasn’t given out of love for Wyoming PBS – like Ted Kennedy, Dick Cheney, David McCullough and many others, he did it for Simpson, who distinctively made deep and lasting friendships in the fickle world of Washington, D.C.
We met in a small guest house on the compound converted into an office, surrounded by Bush family photos, the largest portion of them featuring him and another President who happens to be his son, George W. Bush. The former President was informal, a little wobbly, gracious, and short on details – what you might expect of an 85 year old man, though I reminded myself that only a month earlier he had donned a parachute and jumped out of a plane to celebrate his birthday.
He remembered throwing snowballs with Simpson from the White House roof, but not the dinner they shared the night before he sent troops to Kuwait to oust the invading Iraqis. I nudged him to talk about the way the Republican Party has evolved from his and Simpson’s day, when the moderate wing of the party held sway – but he sidestepped the question, and I realized later I was uncomfortably juxtaposing the party of old with the party of his son’s term in office.
After we were done, the President went next door to chat with staff about flying to Germany for a commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which happened while he was in the White House – there was a question whether to fly commercial or private. Even former Presidents from wealthy families are getting roughed up by the economy. Barbara Bush was riding around the compound in a golf cart.
I was reminded of the ordinary human scale of history makers when you meet them in the flesh, as my work sometimes allows. Jimmy Carter, smaller than I expected in stature, signing the strip mine bill in the Rose Garden, shaking hands limply with a tired smile. Al Simpson, stymied by new phone technology in his cluttered office, cuddling his shy granddaughter when she saw a camera in the room. George H.W. Bush grabbing my arm because he has balance problems, like many elderly persons; rubbing sea salt from his eyebrow, and apologizing with good humor when he couldn’t remember an event.
Driving back to Boston, still in a driving rain, radio on and cell phone chiming, I felt a certain futility – we got the interview we needed, but a journalist wants more. It takes hours to loosen the memory and find those telling details. Al Simpson has given us those hours. That’s the quest in a good documentary – not just to repeat the textbook version of history, but to give viewers that intimate moment, when four people sat at the dinner table upstairs in the White House and a President told his close friends from Wyoming, with a heavy heart, that he was ordering soldiers into combat the next morning.