By Kay Patterson
Watching the tributes to George Herbert Walker Bush upon his death, I lapsed into a reverie about my chance encounter with him years ago.
Never one to enjoy exercising, I had grudgingly started to huff and puff my way through my aerobics class at the YMCA in Concord, N.H., when a tall stranger walked through the door. George Bush.
It was presidential primary season in New Hampshire in 1980. I lived in that state’s capital city and had been a reporter for the local newspaper just a few years earlier, so I was used to seeing everyone from political luminaries to, frankly, crackpots looking for voters. The Granite State is so small that candidates frequently campaign in citizens’ living rooms, playing to hand-selected audiences of people who only vote for candidates they’ve met personally.
But George Bush walking into my aerobics class? That was unusual.
To put this in perspective, he was coming off a big win in the Iowa caucuses, where he dubbed Ronald Reagan’s tax plan “voodoo economics.”
His days with a Secret Service detail were in the future. Still, he was a presidential candidate and he was alone. No staff or YMCA bigwigs.
He joined us during the warm-up, picked up an exercise mat and moved to the back of the room. Bush jogged in place like the rest of us, ran the gym like the rest of us, did sprints and squats and every other torture like the rest of us.
He wasn’t campaigning. I never saw him shake a hand. Bush cut short his cool-down, escaping into the early evening, probably to get ready to campaign in someone’s living room later that night.
I had no similarities to Bush politically, other than agreeing with him about voodoo economics. As his political career went uphill, my view of him was not kind. In fact, during his presidential term I was part of a local guerilla theater group called Ladies of the Lake that employed biting satire — much of it directed at him — to make pro-choice audiences laugh. I played Marilyn Quayle, the smarter-than-me wife of his hapless vice president, Dan Quayle, and I loved my mocking moments in the spotlight.
As the years went on, I had more appreciation for his grace and decency. And in my musing this month, it occurred to me that my only other encounters with presidents or presidential candidates happened when they were in their official roles.
I was in the visitors’ gallery in 1969 when President Richard M. Nixon made a surprise visit to encourage members of the House of Representatives to ignore the masses of young people gathering to protest the war in Vietnam. During that same trip, I briefly interviewed Gerald Ford, then Speaker of the House, for my college newspaper.
In recent years, I attended many campaign events for Hillary Clinton and had my picture taken at her side. I was there when her husband gave a speech at Babeville.
But when I saw future-president George Herbert Walker Bush, he was just a guy in shorts running around the gym like the rest of us.
Kay Patterson, who lives in Buffalo, says Zumba is now her exercise of choice.