I’ve had the honor of greeting four U.S. presidents as they alighted Air Force One on visits to Long Island.
While each instance remains etched in my memory for the manner in which such a simple act underscores the dignity of what is the most powerful office in the free world, one of those moments stands out because it stood as a window into the heart and soul of someone who I, and so many others, believe was one of the most decent humans to wield the power and shoulder the preternatural responsibility of our nation’s chief executive.
The 41st president, George H.W. Bush, and I were friends. Whether it was due to my support of his successful presidential bid in 1988 or a shared bond that developed over phone calls and handwritten notes that made their way among Levittown and Houston, Kennebunkport and Washington, I consider myself blessed to have shared a special relationship with such an incredible human.
So there I was, the son of immigrants, the product of Brooklyn’s notoriously hardscrabble Bedford-Stuyvesant section, standing on line to witness Air Force One as it rolled to a stop. After not too long, the doors were flung open and Bush bounded down the gangway.
Tall and angular, scion of privilege and wealth, product of some of the nation’s most elite schools, hero fighter pilot, he worked his way down the line of official greeters. It took only moments to sense that notwithstanding his pedigree, Bush was nothing like the caricature of the aloof patrician his political opponents, often successfully, used to define him. To meet him, to see him interact with people, was to see the man as he truly was: caring, compassionate, and to borrow a description that is used in focus groups to gauge how well a politician relates to the average voter — he was someone that “you’d like to have a beer with.”
As I stood at the end of the line, it struck me that he was taking his time. There was no sign of the hurried, perfunctory queries of “How’s it going?” that many politicians use as a conversational crutch during never-ending hustles for votes.
He made it a point to inquire about spouses, the progress of a child’s schooling, or plans for that summer’s vacation (this particular visit was in the spring). He conveyed his best wishes to loved ones by name and followed up on personal matters that had been the subject of prior phone calls or letters. And he did all of this without anyone whispering prompts into his ear. It was a feat of memory that the most assiduous student could not have achieved. He remembered all of these folks and the personal details of their lives because he cared. Each in their own way, my fellow greeters held a place in Bush’s heart.
Then it was my turn.
“Hello, Joe, how’s Linda?” the president asked, referring to my wife.
“She’s fine, Mr. President,” I replied.
“Hey, Joe, you ever been on Air Force One?”
“Mr. President, when do you think I ever had the chance to go aboard Air Force One?”
And with that he grabbed me by the arm and up the stairs we went so that he could give me a guided tour of Air Force One. From the president’s private quarters to the galley from which only the president and the pilot were served, he took me through that big magnificent plane, beaming like someone showing off a first new car.
It didn’t matter that he had a schedule to keep. What mattered most to him at that moment was the simple act of friendship that would provide me with a memory that would last my lifetime.
Joseph N. Mondello was chairman of the New York Republican State Committee and chairman of the Nassau Republican Committee. He is U.S. ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago.