PRESIDENTS COME AND CO, AND HISTORY assesses their greatness. But people remember them as much for style—what they did on a day off—as for substance. Ike had golf, Kennedy had his sailing. LBJ careened around his ranch in a big car, and Nixon favored long walks on the beach. George Bush has done it all, but his passion has always been fishing. He enjoys it so much, he will prop his rods and tackle box by the front door the night before a trip to be sure he doesn’t forget them. and hop out of bed before dawn as eagerly as a kid. He doesn’t need an alarm clock.
These truths and more I learned from a day of bass fishing the Potomac River with the President, who made up in fervor anything he lacked in skill. He would cast while talking, cast while eating, cast while working his black-box phone under his code name, Timberwolf. On our only break, he east all the way up the dock while walking to the rest room at Boiling Air Force Base, then east all the way back. The man was mad for casting, and it paid off when he caught a couple of largemouth bass.
That bright April day two years ago was full of surprises, but the strangest—the one I’ll chuckle over forever—came in the dark before dawn when, as the result of a comical breakdown in White House security, I stumbled practically into the presidential bedroom as Bush lay sleeping.
He had phoned me at home a couple of months before, wondering if the outdoor writer for The Washington Post (me) could fill him in on fishing the Potomac, which he’d heard was great. I confirmed that and cleverly invited him to join me and my favorite fishing guide on a spring day when the bass fishing was hot. Bush struck me dumb by saving he’d love to and later suggested I stop by his place at 6 A.M. for coffee. We’d ride down to the river together in his limo.
So it was off to the White House. Guards whisked my aging Volkswagen through a gate at 5:30 A.M. and hung a card bearing a large blue A around my neck—my ticket to high places, as it turned out. The guards sent me to the nearest building entrance, where a sleepy guard and butler awaited the dawn. Neither knew where I should go, but the butler finally ruled. If I was invited for coffee, he said, “he must want you in the residence.” I grabbed tackle box, rods and camera and set off on a dizzying march through the bowels of America’s most famous home—down twisting corridors, through gardens and atriums, ending up in a darkened hallway at a small, wooden elevator door. “Leave your things here,” said the butler. We climbed on, the elevator chugged to life, and we stepped out upstairs in another dark hallway off a grand foyer. There I saw the presidential rods propped neatly in a corner, lest he forget.
A few steps brought us to a second dim reception room, and we were tiptoeing in when a light snapped on. I whirled to see a shocking sight. I was 15 feet from some open double doors, on the other side of which the President, in blue pajamas, was climbing out of bed. His wife was propped on pillows next to him, offering early-morning advice. I hissed at the butler: “Let’s get out of here!”
Like a pair of thieves, we tiptoed back to the elevator hallway, where we debated what to do. “I’ll find out,” said the butler, and he rapped on a metal door. The door swung open and a guard popped out, wearing a radio wire in his ear. We explained the situation. “Where should I be?” I asked. The guard looked me up and down, his gaze finally settling on the card with the big blue A hanging from my neck. Said he: “You can be anywhere yon want.” And he disappeared back into his stairwell.
The butler was baffled. “You wail here,” he said. “I’ll go downstairs and see what’s going on.” He stepped in the elevator and punched the down button, leaving me, as far as I could tell, alone in the presidential residence with the President and his wife. Moments later I heard a sound I really wasn’t hoping for—the patter of footsteps approaching. Around the corner came the President himself, in leather slippers and monogrammed bathrobe, hair mussed and glasses askew. He was waving a sheaf of papers and calling for the butler, but all he found was a startled fisherman, spluttering apologies. The confusion was mercifully broken by the ca-CHUNK! of the elevator. The butler was coming to the rescue. Moments later the black-tied gentleman was between us. “Coffee is downstairs in the diplomatic reception room,” he sniffed to me. “Everyone is waiting.”
I was a wreck, but President Bush seemed unshaken. I guess this stuff happens often enough that he hardly noticed. He handed the butler the papers, with instructions to get them to his secretary, then wheeled away, shouting over his shoulder, “Big fish to catch today! Big fish!”
And indeed there were. In the end it was the President himself, with his tireless casting, who caught the biggest, but it wasn’t exactly the one he expected. Guide Glenn Peacock, the President and I all boated a few bass, but the prize of the day was an 8-lb. carp that latched onto the President’s plastic worm. When the fish surfaced and Peacock realized what it was, he begged Bush to let him cut it off. He didn’t want photographs circulating of a famous bass guide netting an ugly bottom-dwelling carp for the President. But Bush would have none of it. “Biggest fish of the day,” he shouted. “Get the net!”
And for the rest of the trip he was intolerable. Anytime either of us caught a nice bass. President Bush would turn up his nose. “Anyone can catch a bass,” he’d say. “It takes real skill to land the wily, elusive Potomac carp.”