I’ve had the chance to see 4 Presidents in person:
- Gerald Ford, when his campaign jet touched down at Bates Field in Mobile on a Sunday evening in September, 1976, bringing with him Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and Governor George Wallace.
- Jimmy Carter, when I sat 2 chairs away from him in the Cabinet Room just off the Oval Office in the White House during a regional press briefing.
- Ronald Reagan, during another regional press meeting, where I had lunch with him in the State Dining Room of the White House. (Full disclosure: The President sat with news anchors from New York, Chicago, etc. I sat so far away at the edge of the room I was almost on the South Lawn of the White House.) I also saw Reagan when he came to Dothan in 1986 and brought down the house with his line about where to promote his tax reform act. He said he found the answer in the Book of Genesis; “Let us go to Dothan”.
- But the first (and so far) only President I’ve actually met and questioned at the White House was Bill Clinton, about 6 months into his presidency. See more of these images by going to my Facebook page, Bob Grip.
The other day, when I was going through a box of tapes, I found the old (1993) 3/4 inch cassette tape that contained a copy of my live reports and stories from that one day trip to Washington. Thanks to our chief engineer Roland Fields, we converted the stories from analog to video to share with you.
The big issues in 1993 – healthcare, taxes and military cutbacks – still sound familiar today. Add in some discussion of who would take the place of U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions, and hear about then-Democratic Senator Richard Shelby not getting along with the White House (did that make him a DINO?) and you have a look back at life in southern Alabama in the early 1990s.
- At the time of Ford’s visit, we did not have the capability to go “live”. We had to relay tapes back to the station downtown to get them on the air.
- When entering the White House for the Carter visit, I got through security easily but my photographer told the Secret Service he was there to “shoot the President”. I understood he meant shoot him with the camera he brought with him, but you might say he was slightly delayed by agents.
- There were Godiva chocolates on the table at the Reagan luncheon.
- The day I was supposed to meet Clinton, I turned on the TV to see the news that one of his advisors, Vince Foster, had committed suicide overnight; we were told there was almost no chance of meeting Clinton that day. When we gathered in the Roosevelt Room, outside the Oval Office, we were greeted by Vice President Al Gore. After a few questions, the door from the Oval Office suddenly opened and the President walked in. I have to admit I broke into a cold sweat when the President called on me for a question. It brought back memories of watching live, afternoon news conferences featuring President John F. Kennedy. I never imagined at the time that I would have the chance to question a President of the United States someday. (I asked him about the recent closing of Mobile’s Navy Homeport, as you can see on the video.) It was truly an “Only in America” moment.
- Photographer Al Tuggle and I had a satellite window to hit at 5 pm central time the day of the Clinton briefing, but the President was in no hurry to leave and it was protocol at the time (and may still be) that no one leaves before the President leaves. As soon as he returned to the Oval Office, we bolted out of the White House to a parking garage where our rental car waited. I hopped behind the wheel and sped down Pennsylvania Avenue to the news bureau near the Capitol building, jumped out of the car and ran up to the roof of the building where a camera crew was already waiting for me. While Al found a place to park, I went on the air without a script with seconds to spare. It was like a trapeze act without a net. No one at home was the wiser.
Since then, I have tried without success to meet with both Presidents Bush, as well as President Obama. Someday, perhaps…