Back in November 2010, ground was broken for the George W. Bush Presidential Center. Then there was the topping off ceremony in October 2011. A week ago, the Center’s dedication made history with four past presidents and President Barack Obama all in attendance. We thought you would like a behind-the-scenes peek at what led up to the big moment. This is a lengthy post, so you might want to either settle back in a very comfy chair, or take it a little bit at a time.
5:30 a.m. — Driving south on Central Expressway frontage road. Just past Lovers Lane, flashing lights are spotted at SMU Boulevard. It used to be called Yale Boulevard, but they changed it to SMU (Ironically, former President George W. Bush graduated from Yale.) Young clean-cut guy wearing a jacket emblazoned with “Secret Service” is at the intersection and is asked where the media check-in is. He is the type that if you had asked where Jimmy Hoffa was buried, he’d probably know. “Go to Mockingbird and turn right.”
Follow his directions and eventually the SMU safety staff says this is as far as the vehicle can go. Am advised to ask the fellow in the Meadows Parking Garage on the next segment of the journey. He says go up a block, turn left and continue ‘til Binkley and turn right. . . “and your media people will be there.”
The walk is eerie . . . really eerie. The streets are so empty. It’s like a vacuum. You almost want to stop and take in the silence, the cleanliness, the solitude, the peace. But there is a schedule to keep and security check-in to survive. The only vehicle is an SMU van parked on the left side of the road. Decide to walk on the right sight of the road.
Ah, there is a person up ahead. The blue jacket is familiar. A little closer and there is a smile and a mustache that is better known than “Howdy” from the late Big Tex. It’s Jack Boles’ “Gary Ferraro.” He laughs at the fact that we’re up at 5:45. Then he points north and says to turn right at the next block . . . “and your media people will be there.”
After a block and a right turn, there is a check-in set up. It’s like an airport security check, only you don’t have to take off your shoes. There are four lanes but only three are operational right now. Upon approach, a couple of hunky Secret Services guys who are stationed behind barricades on the right advise, “Media takes the right lane, but if you have any electronics, leave them here and go through the mags.”
Hello? Mags? They’re glorified magnetic detectors. The good news is the other lanes are already backed up a bit, but the media line only has one person in it.
As we head to the mags, we see the Secret Service starting to examine the bag. Am worried. Did I leave something embarrassing in the bag? Don’t think so. Don’t have time to think about it, as my feet continue to walk to the mags. The TV reporter ahead of me empties his pockets of change and keys. Oh, dear. This could be tense. With most of my “stuff” in my camera vest, I strip it off and brace for a rigorous examine. Should I take off my wristwatch? No. My shoes? No. I start to worry about the underwire in my bra, but am too embarrassed to ask. I walk through the mag and stop smiling that nothing happened. Then the buzzer goes off. The security chap says to try again: “Walk straight through and don’t stop.” He reminds me of a gym teacher who had a devil of a time getting me to do a headstand. I hadn’t failed. I just hadn’t passed with flying colors. I try again. He’s right.
In the meantime the vest is being thoroughly examined by a uniformed man with gloves. “You look like you’ve done this before.” He responds, “I’m from the White House.” Oh.
My vest also passes its examine, so I put it back on and make a U-turn to pick up my bag of electronics. The chill of the cold front is starting make things nippy. The Secret Service guys who have given my bag a passing grade are in short sleeves. One of them has a gallery of tattoos on his arm. I laugh and ask if they’re cold. One of them says he is. The other one says he shouldn’t be since he’s from New Jersey.
Grabbing the gear, I follow the TV crew that had been ahead of me in the check-in. They head to the parking lot that is jammed with trucks and RV’s. It reminds me of a media version of a Jimmy Buffet tailgater, only there’s no music or smoke. As antennae tower over the rows of vehicles, people are seen inside drinking coffee and preparing for the day ahead. Across SMU Boulevard is a huge multi-tiered structure that has been erected to hold the photographers and videographers. To its side is a small penned-off area with a few rows of chairs. This is what the print media is to call home.
In front of the photo platform is a waist-high brick wall that separates the VIP guests from the rest of the world. But even in this VIP community, there is a definite caste system in place. In addition to the White, Silver and Gold sections, there are barricades separating them from the upfront and extremely special VIPs.
Preparations are in their final stages to herd the guests into the sections. There is no doubt that every seat will be filled. It’s all so organized. Staff and volunteers are easy to spot by various means — lanyards, red T-shirts saying “Dedication Event Staff” and, of course, the ones with the curled cords leading from their ear to a place underneath their jackets. Within this temporary universe, the cords indicate high mojo.
6:30 a.m. — It’s cold. The occasional wind and the fact that most of the media haven’t lugged along snow parkas doesn’t help. One gal in the print pen is wrapped up in a pink quilted throw. Even wrapped up in her blanket, she still looks cold. People huddle making small talk to bond and share body heat.
New York Times Managing Director Robert Janss arrives with Starbucks coffee. Photographer Jerry McClure asks if he brought it from the outside world. Roberts says there is coffee, bagels and fruit at the Crum Basketball Center that has been transformed into the media center. But it’s blocks away and even the journalists’ lifeblood (aka java) isn’t enough to have the media hike over. Guess no one had thought of having a table of coffee at the pen. It’s soon observed that people with cameras and tripods are the only ones allowed up the stairs of the structure. But there’s a catch. If you don’t have a blue badge, volunteer Dawn Spalding gently sends you back down the narrow stairs.
The wind is now picking up. One person says in a positive way, “When the sun comes up, it’ll warm up.” Others are trying to feel their fingers. The volunteers don’t appear to be cold. They’re moving too fast arranging programs and checking out the seating arrangements.
7:00 a.m. — We only have three more hours to wait before the dedication starts. When the media is put together in a situation like this, they check their cellphones, compare notes on “I remember when. . . “and swap tales. One story making the rounds is about an SMU photographer with credentials to go anywhere (that is considered the platinum card of the event), who had $50,000 worth of equipment stolen from his car the night before along with his coveted badge. Eyes widen, mouths form perfect “O”s and “Wow!”s are exhaled. Today’s urban legend has just been born. Everything has been going too smoothly. The media needed some rumor to warm them up.
One or two media types wander over to the wall to see how the other half will live. There are tables covered with bottles of water. Most of the press just stay put. It’s too darn cold to move around.
The sun is up, but the wind chill is still the dominating factor. One person goes in front of the structure to take a picture of the rows of photographers. An efficient, stocky man with gray curly hair and a cord in his ear comes up, “Miss, you’re not to be here.” But I’m just taking a photo of the media. “If you don’t have a blue badge, you can’t be here.” Without the blue badge, the media is the lowest group on the property. A race to see how far we can push our “Media” badge privileges is underway. It will eventually shrink to the pen. Even the maintenance crew that is trying to sweep up a pool of water in the gutter ranks higher on this day.
Ah, but the media is a resourceful group of mice. They haven’t gotten the reputation for being pains for nothing. As they spy early arriving guests, they jump into action. The sidewalk leading up to the wall is not badge limited . . . yet, so the arriving guests are our prey.
8:00 a.m. — Like the media a few hours before, the guests begin arriving on site, a little confused, a little worn from walking blocks and a little chilly. But also like the media they are squeaky clean from going through security, like having a successful colonoscopy. Nobody’s packing firearms that shouldn’t be. This may be the safest place on earth, one person is heard to say. Still, there is anxiety in the air. Oldtimers are especially apprehensive. It’s taken then nearly 50 years to recover from that day in November and now the city is facing four former and one sitting president. It’s a topic not discussed, but it is in the air.
As the crowds grow walking up the sidewalk, the print media like D Magazine’s Tim Rogers, D CEO’s Christine Perez, D Home’s Peggy Levinson and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Bud Kennedy take their positions along the side in tall grass. Someone says it’s a form of Buffalo Grass requiring little maintenance and very hardy for Texas weather conditions. That may be true, but it is really being put to the test by the back and forth of the media as they play “I Spy” with local VIPs and visiting dignitaries.
“That man looks familiar. He’s on FOX a lot,” someone says. Media types look surprised at the admission that a member of the press corps admits to watching the conservative network. “Well, my husband watches it. I watch CNN,” the woman says, fearing to lose her standing among the group.
It’s later learned that the man in question is Tom Ridge, the former governor of Pennsylvania and U.S. Homeland Security Advisor.
A small woman with a big smile and a gentle approach asks a photographer to take a picture of her father. Why not? In fact, let’s do a father-daughter picture. Wonderful. The photo is taken and will be sent but where? Daughter, father and photographer don’t have business cards on them. No problem. The woman gently asks her assistant, “Anna,” to provide info. Things are getting interesting. Not everyone has an assistant and father in tow. Shoot! They were lucky enough to get their spouses in. Anna is good. She not only has a card, she immediately emails her address to the photog. Then introductions are exchanged. The father is Dr. James Chao. His daughter is Elaine Chao, former Secretary of Labor in W’s administration and wife of Mitch McConnell. They depart for their seats.
Now, the paparazzi program is doing a brisk business. Bud Kennedy has his iPad and is chatting with folks. On the other side of the sidewalk, Tim Rogers is tweeting like a mockingbird in between chats with Rachael Dedman and Lisa and Kenny Troutt. Troy Aikman walks by. Somebody asks if the wisp of a girl with him is his girlfriend or his daughter? Oh, really! Another jock type is over on the sidewalk talking with friends. It’s Nolan Ryan. A tall fellow is spotted approaching. Most of the women don’t know who he is. The men nearly drop their cell phones to photograph him. It’s Dikembe Mutombo.
It’s getting dizzy just trying to keep up with all the names and faces. Bo Pilgrim, Ted Cruz, Perots, Hunts, Hoglunds, Hegis, Dedmans, Prothro, Novakovs, Andrews, Brierleys. . . boldfaces are too numerous to count.
A new symbol of status is starting to pop up. It’s a “W” lapel pin. It’s not a weasely, weak W, nor a scripted, fru-fru one. It’s a bold one that stands out. People wear it with pride. Tim asks what the letter stands for. The answer is “lunch.” Seems that those wearing the “W” will attend an ultra-private lunch hosted by Annette Simmons. One guest tells a buddy to meet him at Bubba’s afterwards. Neither is wearing a “W.”
Speaking of food, WFAA’s Ron Corning and Gloria Campos, who have been anchoring all morning, stroll up the street with coffee and bagels, taking in the sights. They look like they’re walking along the State Fair midway. KDFW’s Clarice Tinsley is picking up information for her coverage. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews is joined by others in the NBC treehouse of a studio that’s located back in the parking lot with the mobile homes.
Different singing groups (Southern Gentlemen, Inspiration Gospel Choir, The Belle Tones and Meadows Chorale) perform on the two mega screens. The reviews are lukewarm with, “They’re off key.” Wearing what appears to be a 5 o’clock shadow, Georgetown University’s Jim Parenti interviews various top dogs (Exhibit Designer Dan Murphy, Library Director Alan Lowe, SMU President Gerald Turner, Bush Center Board Member Jeanne Phillips, Foundation Chair Don Evans, Bush “staffer” Tony Fratto) responsible for the creation and maintenance of the center. It’s a bit like a local version of C-SPAN.
But just as the print media is really starting to warm up and get into the groove of stop-and-chat with guests, Bud is told to head back toward the pen. Uh, oh! A young man in a plaid suit with cord is herding the press flock to the other side of the walk and into their area.
Up in the photo platform, it is a squeeze play. The blending of still and video photographers is an interesting one. Depending on the personalities it can either be a World Wrestling Match or a civilized, “You’ve got your space, I’ve got mine” situation. Maybe it’s due to the hours of waiting in the cold, but this situation here is the latter.
9:45 a.m. — Whatever is to happen will be history and, high atop the photographers’ platform, there is no need to elbow each other. Because the platform is so far away from the stage, a forest of tripod holds the cameras steady. Among the still photographers, there is a definite lens envy going on. One of the lenses is so large, it requires two hands to hold it up. According to one person, Ramsey and Eugene at Competitive Camera had reported having a very good week renting out equipment.
A voice is heard over the PA asking guests to take their seats. Within the sections, there is a way of life being established. The ones on the east and in the center are chatting it up. They recognize each other and are in a celebratory mood, sorta like a high school homecoming game.
The section on the west is starting to realize that their programs are more than souvenirs. They are coming in handy as the rising sun blinds their view and sunglasses can only shield so much daylight. The holy grail of seats is orchestra (aka front center). Jeb Bush chats with Tony Blair. Colin Powell, Mandy Bush, Gene and Jerry Jones, Robert Stern, Gerald Turner, Michael Van Valkenburg, Mark Langdale and Alan Lowe. But even this elite group isn’t above pulling up cell phones to snap pictures of fellow top dogs.
Some nearly made the cut into this area, but missed it by a barricade like Tom Leppert, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, etc.
Former “first daughters” Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Pierce Bush arrive and chat with guests as they take their seats on the front row. Jenna was originally not slated to attend due to the pending birth of her and husband Henry’s daughter Mila. But Mila wasn’t about to miss out of the action and was delivered early, so mom and dad are in attendance.
Barbara is not alone. She’s brought along her boyfriend of two years, graffiti artist Miky Fábrega. Word has it that he’s not a big FOX fan, but today he looks pretty buttoned-down in coat, tie and trimmed up haircut. OK, so the facial stubble is a break from the conservative feel of the crowd, but what the heck.
Looking from the photo platform at the thousands seated both in front of the center and in the playing field, one person wonders what the organizers would have done had it rained. No one goes any further with that topic.
On the top of the center are members of the Secret Service with huge binoculars. Talk about the ultimate security system. While all guests, volunteers and media focus on the stage, those responsible for their safety look in other directions.
10:00 a.m. —The presentation begins and includes such highlights as:
- Members of the U.S. Army band walk out on top of the library and museum and line up neat as a pleat. As they prepare to perform, a gentleman in a similar uniform climbs atop the brick wall in front of the photog platform. Guess he wants a good look at the musicians. Wrong! He raises his arms. All musicians’ eyes are now focused on him. He waves his arms and they play.
Wearing a felt Stetson on his head and his sunglasses in his breast pocket, Vice President Dick Cheney is first out waving to the crowd.
The introduction of past first children. Oops! The first announced is Luci Baines Johnson, but out walks sister Lynda Bird Johnson Robb. Then Linda’s name is announced and out comes Luci. Tricia Nixon Cox is next and still looks like a little princess. No Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, Chelsea Clinton or any of the Ford boys, but Susan Ford Bales and Michael Reagan are presented.
The four past First Ladies (Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush and Rosalynn Carter) follow First Lady Michelle Obama on stage. Talk about perfect color coordination. No two are wearing the same color. Can’t help but wonder if the gals called each other or if it was just a fashionable accident.
Next President Barack Obama is announced, followed by George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, who arrives via wheelchair, and Jimmy Carter. As the entire crowd faces this historic gathering of the five past and current presidents, the man with the gray curly hair is scouring like a watchdog.
To the left of the stage there are two towering clear panels. They are positioned between the audience and the Obamas’ side of the stage.
The pledge of allegiance is led by 1st Lt. Melissa Stockwell. Because of the standing crowd, many in the back do not realize that her left leg is a prosthesis decorated in red, white and blue. She was the first female to lose a limb in the Iraq War.
- On either side of the podium are two teleprompters that at times prove challenging for people to see Obama hug W; W hug Laura, etc.
Barack and Michelle looked like they were having a great time with Barbara Bush.
- Before the presidents are to officially congratulate the Bushes on their new center, the U.S. Army chorus is to perform “American the Beautiful.” But before they can get the first note out, Jimmy C gets up and heads toward the podium. W gently suggests that he’s ahead of schedule. Jimmy returns to his seat and thumbs through his agenda with Rosalyn to see how he misread his cue.
Each of the presidents puts his own brand on the congrats. Bill stole the show, telling how his mother had told him to keep the remarks brief. Turning to Barbara Bush, he said he wouldn’t let her down. Then he told how upon learning of W’s painting skills, he had considered having W do a portrait of him. Until, that is, he saw the hacked self-portraits of W in his bathroom.
The sentimental fav was the hands-down winner: H.W. Bush. Sitting in his wheelchair, he kept his remarks to a John Wayne-style, “Thank you for being here and for supporting this project.” Turning to his son, he asked if he had kept it brief enough. Perhaps he didn’t realize that his lapel mic was still on. It brought a laugh for W and the rest of the crowd, who saluted him with a standing O. In turn, ever the gentleman, he rose to his feet with the help of W and Barbara.
Ahead of schedule, the colors are marched away. The four past presidents, their wives and the Obamas leave. While the former White House residents lunch, the Obamas exit for Waco and the memorial to the West tragedy. Those who are not are lunching with the ultimate swells head for the Jack Boles team and awaiting limousines.
Somewhere a gray curly haired fellow and a lot of Secret Service types take a deep breath. This occasion will go down in the history books for the dedication of a presidential center, its assembly of presidents and nothing else. It was without incident.