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By Matt McCarthy
I first met President George W. Bush when I was in college, the summer of 1997, when I was working as an intern for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Of course back then he was Governor Bush, but even at that time there was a prevailing sense that his stay in Austin would be cut short by a move to D.C. Most observers agreed that he was a man with a higher calling, a rising star in the party who would soon be called on to carry the GOP back to the promised land.
My job that summer was to serve as the leg man for Conrad Learner, one of the Star-Telegram's most celebrated political columnists. On a paper full of Texas democrats Connie Learner was very nearly the lone conservative opinion, a voice gaining in popularity in this area over recent years. But really he wasn't popular for his opinions so much as he was for his (shall we say) eccentricities:
And for some ungodly reason the residents of Fort Worth loved him from the beginning. For all his oddities (eccentricities) and other attributes, they adopted him as some sort of big, mythic, lovable city monument. They laughed at the outrageous tales of his drunken misadventures and traded stories of "Connie Sightings" amongst each other. And almost all of them followed his columns, whether they agreed with his often extremist, right-wing ideas or not.
So I was in Fort Worth the first day, they were showing me around the office and telling me stories about this guy, just one after another that I couldn't even believe, and then Doug Sherman, the opinions editor, looked right at me and said, "And it'll be your job to assist Mr. Learner in the preparation of his columns conduct interviews, do research, obtain documents that sort of thing."
I was full of dread, I'm not ashamed to admit. I don't think anyone could blame me for not greeting with enthusiasm the idea of essentially being offered into indentured servitude to this fat, foul-smelling, gun-toting, drunken right-winger. But I steadied myself and inwardly vowed to perform my duties as well as I was able, to do a good job, and to learn as much as I could.
I quickly learned that chief among my duties was filling his drink and food orders, which were constant. That kept me busier than any of the official work I could have been doing. But, for the record, my official duties included keeping him up to speed on everything that was going on, both local and national; running around with my tape recorder getting "man on the street" snippets which Connie often liked to use in his columns; and attending local political events (press conferences, ribbon cuttings, fund raisers, that stuff) to gather quotes, collect press releases, and let him know who was in attendance.
It was at one such event, a fundraiser for a local charity organization, that I met the then governor of Texas and now president of these United States, George W. Bush.
We were at a local grammar school with everyone set up in the gymnasium. A pancake brunch for which the food was prepared and served by celebrities of minor stature, the most notable of whom included one of the local weather girls, Stacey MacDunnah, and Drew Pearson, the one-time wide receiver with the Dallas Cowboys. Television crews, reporters from all the papers, the works, all present at this pancake brunch because the governor was coming to speak. It was also rumored that the governor might even serve up some pancakes after he'd finished with his speech, get down and do some real interacting with the people.
There were still about 10 minutes before Bush was supposed to begin his speech, so I decided to duck away to the men's room. I got there and found I wasn't the only man with that idea: there was a line that, to me, looked like about a 10-minute line. So I retreated and went searching for an alternate bathroom.
I found one, after a little searching, at the other end of the school. I entered, and looked around, finding it deserted. Then I made a discovery: I was in a bathroom for eight-year-olds. The urinals were smaller than usual and only about a foot off the ground. There was a stall, so I went in there, figuring it would be easier.
I know this sounds like too much information, but bear with me.
So then (after) I was standing hunched over the sink for eight-year-olds, washing my hands, when a guy walked in wearing a dark suit and sunglasses, and in a strong, clear voice said, "Stop what you're doing and remain perfectly still."
I was perfectly still.
A moment passed. Then another. Then, the same voice: "It's clear."
And in walked George W. Bush with his security guy. The security guy stopped right behind me, about three feet directly behind me, then said, "Go ahead, sir." I was just standing there as still as possible, but I could see the governor out of the corner of my eye. He was looking at the little urinals. Then he undid his belt and fly and tried to position himself. He took what seemed a downward diagonal approach, sort of crouched over and crooked.
Everything seemed fine for a moment. Then, suddenly, "AWE, SHIT!" It was the governor. "HIGH HOLY SHIT!" I couldn't help but look over, as did the security guy. In his awkward stance Bush had somehow managed to urinate all over the front of his pants and down nearly the entire length of one leg. He was standing there, his pants undone, his arms outstretched in this my-God-look-at-me sort of posture, and I couldn't help but let out a small chuckle.
"SHIT!" This time it was the security guy.
"GODDAMMIT!" said Bush. It was an awkward moment. Then, somehow a little calmer, Bush said to his security guy, "Have 'em send my other suit from the limo, will ya Pete?"
Pete lifted his wrist, and into a small microphone he had hidden there he said, "We're gonna need Lone Star One's spare suit from the limo. We're in the bathroom on the east side of the building. We've had an accident."
I was still standing at the sink with wet hands. Bush kicked off his shoes and began to shake himself free from his pants. "Pete, why don't you go stand guard, make sure no one else comes in. When the other suit gets here just bring it right on in yerself."
"What about him?" Pete asked, motioning to me.
"Leave him here," said Bush. "I wanna have a word with this young man." It sounded a little sinister to me, and I have to admit I was nervous. Pete walked out and left me standing there in the bathroom with the governor of Texas, who was in his suit coat, a shirt and tie, black socks, and his boxer shorts.
"So what's your story, son?" he asked me. I told him I worked for Connie Learner of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, to which he laughed and replied, "That old sonofabitch, huh? Well I reckon you seen a man peed on himself before then, haven't you?" It was a good joke I thought, under the circumstances, and it helped to break the tension. I dried my hands. We both laughed.
He asked my name and I told him. He seemed easy to talk to. Surprisingly charismatic for a man who had just pissed himself and was now standing there in his suit coat and underwear.
"Lemme ask you something, Matt." The governor reached into the inside pocket of his jacket. "Do ya get high?" He pulled out a slightly bent-up joint and a plastic cigarette lighter and held it in front of me. I know, in retrospect, it seems utterly bizarre. But at the time in the context of this already surreal moment it didn't seem too far out of place.
I told him yeah, occasionally, I get high.
"Well I'm gonna smoke this joint while my guys are getting my other suit." He placed it between his lips and puffed as he lit up. It smelled really pungent, like amazing stuff. He exhaled a billowy cloud of bluish smoke then extended it to me. "You want some?"
You're 21 years old and the governor of Texas passes you a joint. What are ya gonna do? I grabbed it from him and took a hit.
It was really great stuff. I could tell right away. I could feel it all over with one hit. I exhaled and passed it back to Governor Bush.
"That's good stuff, hey?" he asked as he carefully extracted the joint from between my fingers. "I know a guy who knows a guy who gets this stuff from the mountains in Mexico." Bush put the joint back to his lips and inhaled really deeply, taking in a giant hit, still holding his breath as he passed it back to me. He exhaled as I was taking my hit, then he looked up at me with this really stoned look, his eyes squinty and almost crossed a little. It struck me as so funny I erupted, exhaling, coughing, and laughing all at once.
"Shhhhhh," Bush warned. "We don't want to call attention to ourselves. I'd get in big trouble if the wrong person caught me doing this. Marijuana is considered a hallucigination, and I am the governor after all " He kind of trailed off and took another hit. He handed it back to me just as Pete the security guy came in with the new suit.
Bush took the suit from Pete and began to put it on. I was just standing there holding the joint, stoned. "This here's Matt," Bush said to his bodyguard as he motioned toward me. Pete looked over at me and didn't say a word. The governor continued dressing and said to Pete, "Me and Matt reached an agreement while you were away. Matt's not gonna say a word about any of this to anyone and we're gonna overlook this little drug incident." Bush walked over to me, winked, and took the joint out of my hand. He put it to his lips, took one last long drag, and flicked it into one of the miniature urinals. He closed his eyes and exhaled. "It's a good deal, don't ya think, Pete?"
"Yessir," Pete replied.
"What kind of a hitch would this boy be looking at if we prosecuted?" Bush asked Pete.
"Possession of narcotics in a grammar school ten years," Pete said. "At least."
"Ten years in the Texas State Penn." Bush whistled softly as he slid back into his shoes. "And we could prosecute at any time, couldn't we?"
"You are the governor, sir," Pete replied dryly.
Bush walked to the little sink and began washing his hands. He was just a couple of feet from me now. There was only the sound of the running water for a minute, then the governor turned off the faucet and began drying his hands with some paper towels. He looked right at me, smiling, and said, "It's not like anyone would believe any of this anyway, Matt." He threw the paper towel in the garbage, then checked his teeth and hair in the mirror. "And if it came right down to it, Matt, who they gonna believe? You? Or the governor of Texas and a member of his staff?"
Obviously, this was a rhetorical question.
So then Bush walked right up to me and looked in my eyes. It was a strange moment. Like he was waiting for me to say something or he was about to kiss me. I was nervous as hell. Then the governor smiled and said softly, "I'm so stoned how 'bout you?"
I couldn't help but smile and chuckle a little as I nodded. He chuckled too. We shook hands. There was an understanding.
"Pete?" the governor called as he turned away from me.
"Grab that old suit and let's go." Without even the slightest hesitation Pete picked up Bush's soiled suit and began to head for the door. The governor turned back to me and said, "It's been a pleasure, Matt. Be sure to give my regards to Connie." And he and Pete walked out of the bathroom and left me standing there alone.
It must have been a couple of minutes. I was trying to compose myself, going over in my mind exactly what had just transpired. Then this other guy walked in. An older guy, maybe in his late sixties, kind of bent and wizened. I was just standing there in front of the mirror when I see him start checking out the little urinals. Suddenly I was struck with fear that this little old man was going to discover the joint the governor flicked into the urinal and I'd be arrested, sent to do a ten-year hitch in some godawful Texas prison. But I let out a big sigh of relief as I saw the little old man walk into the stall and shut the door behind him, wisely opting not to attempt his business in a miniature urinal.
After the fundraiser was over I went back to Connie's and told him everything. He sat and listed to his stoned intern ramble on about how he'd met the governor in the bathroom during this pancake brunch, about the difficulties the governor had with the little urinal, and about Pete the security guy. About the pot and the ten-year hitch. Connie sat there in his easy chair listening, smoking a cigarette and drinking a can of Old Style that he rested on his enormous belly when it wasn't pressed against his lips. His white undershirt, stretched to its limit against his girth, was covered with the little rings of sweat his can would leave when he lifted it from its resting place.
I told him everything. And when I was finished he rose slowly from his chair, laboring against gravity to get all that weight up, and he looked at me kind of disgusted and said, "So you didn't bring any pancakes back with you?"
No Connie, I didn't bring any pancakes back with me.
"Well sonofabitch. Boy goes to a goddamned pancake breakfast and doesn't even bring back any pancakes. What in the hell is the matter with you, son? Don't you know nothing?"
Connie didn't care about the rest. He was only slightly amused at the governor pissing himself, saying only, "it happens." As for the pot, he said, "Everyone knows Bush is a hop head. Haven't you heard the man speak?"
Connie went on to explain that most of our politicians are usually high, both at the state and federal level. It was the first time I had ever heard this, and finally it all made sense. No wonder.
Now all Connie could think of was pancakes. "You better find me some pancakes, boy, or I swear to God I'm gonna put a bullet in ya." He gave me instructions to go to an IHOP on the other side of town and to tell a waitress there named Linda to give him a blueberry special to go. He said to make sure they gave him extra blueberries. "If I don't get extra blueberries, boy, I don't know what I'm gonna do." He gave me some money, hollered a little more about his affection for the blueberry, and sent me on my way.
So I left, still a little stoned, into the hot Texas afternoon, trying to follow Connie's impossible-to-follow instructions to the IHOP on the other side of Fort Worth where Linda the waitress would give me extra blueberries. And I thought of Governor Bush smoking joints in bathrooms all across Texas, and finally it all made sense.
Copyrightę2001 by Matt McCarthy.
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