Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Uh...Mmphello Mffster Preffident..

Gerald Ford is the only former President of the United States whom I spoke to with my mouth full.

Gerald Ford's passing last night brought back the memory of my one and only meeting with him. It was 13 or 14 years ago, and he was in San Antonio.

The former President is probably best known for pardoning Richard Nixon, but in San Antonio he's probably better remembered for a culinary gaffe...he was offered a tamale and didn't remove the corn husk before chomping down on it.

That's the type of thing that automatically pegs you as someone unfamiliar with Mexican food...sort of like wincing when you see someone pour salsa on eggs. It was an understandable mistake, if you've never had a tamale how would you know how to go about eating one? I've had any number of visitors from other states who've asked the procedure for devouring tamales.

Anyway, that incident happened I believe when he was still the President. My meeting with Mr. Ford happened after he had left office, although it did involve food.

It was a campaign year, and an upstart Republican named Henry Bonilla was making his first run for Congress in a traditionally Democratic district. Bonilla had held no previous political office, but he was well-spoken, Hispanic, and - at that time - married to a very popular television news reader.

Anyway, Mr. Ford was making a campaign appearance on Bonilla's behalf at a swanky downtown hotel, the first stop on a rapid fire swing through South Texas. I went to cover the event, and being an experienced reporter, I knew that morning news conferences usually involved food. Since this event was being held at a nice hotel, I figured it would be good food too. I made certain to get there with plenty of time to spare so my feasting would not be interrupted by actually having to cover the news.

Sure enough, I arrived and was directed to one of the hotel ballrooms where there was a fine spread of coffee, juices, donuts, fruits, and other delicacies...all of which fit very well into my budget at the time.

In other words, they were free for the taking.

I was the first person there; the ballroom was vacant except for me and the breakfast bar, so I started digging in.

I was well into my second or third sticky bun when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I thought, "Oh great, probably some political wonk who's going to direct me to a seat and away from the buffet."

So I turned around, my mouth still half full, and evidence of gluttony scattered all over my shirt, only to hear,"Hi, I'm Gerald Ford."

And sure enough he was...the Gerald Ford...the guy who pardoned Nixon, got shot at by Squeaky Fromme, the only man to ever serve in the Oval office who had never been elected to a national political post.

And he was alone.

It was only me and him with a rather curious number of pastry crumbs between us.

I quickly tried to be discreet and wipe the sticky bun residue from my hand as he reached out his hand in greeting.

Admittedly, Mr. Ford had not been in office for a number of years, and presumably Squeaky Fromme was well medicated, rather than self-medicated, some place where she couldn't get near him, but I was still a little shocked that the former President of the United States was wandering around alone.

My first words were literally spoken with my mouth half-full of free foodstuffs - and I was certainly unprepared for this encounter - but I did manage to greet him as respectfully as possible while still trying to swallow the remnants of a croissant.

My tape recorder was on a chair near the front of the room, so I wasn't prepared to interview him. My mind raced trying to think of something to talk to him about, I mean I don't really run in the same circles as former Presidents...heck, I don't even hang around people who play golf. I was a bit numb, and I'll confess I was also trying my best to position myself in front of the buffet table so that Mr. Ford might not notice how seriously I had ransacked it.

Besides my first words of introduction, which were at least respectful, albeit somewhat muffin muffled, I could only think of one other thing to say....

I asked Gerald Ford, the former President of the United States,"Shouldn't there be someone here to protect you from people like me?

I think he began to laugh, but then, as if on cue, the "handlers" came rushing in...they included Henry Bonilla and his then wife, who gave me a look like I had done something truly underhanded, yet I knew she couldn't possibly have had the chance to see the glaring glazed donut disparity on the buffet table.

They ushered Mr. Ford away and soon began introducing him to more important people, which wasn't hard to do...the busboy at that hotel probably earned more money than I did at the time.

The political staging then got underway in earnest and I was kept in my proper place, close enough to get a sound bite or two, but too far from the buffet table to snag a bite of anything else.

It was a brief interlude, my one-on-one with Gerald Ford. However he did strike me as a very down to earth kind of guy. Someone who felt comfortable enough to walk into a virtually empty ballroom...EARLY...for a political event and strike up a conversation with the only other person there.

I always thought a little differently about Gerald Ford after that...

He overlooked my crumb-laden "free food" frenzied face...I figured I could forget about that one little tamale.

Gerald Ford