Fabiola Santiago

My unforgettable lunch with President George H.W. Bush in the White House

President George H.W Bush didn’t like to be asked political questions during lunch, I and the five other journalists who would be seated at his table were warned by the White House staffer in charge of protocol.

He wanted to share an enjoyable meal.

But I just couldn’t help myself. Having the president of the United States seated next to you and not being able to discuss news on a year as historic as 1989 was torture. The talk about children (mine) and grandchildren (his) can only go so far when the reforms of glasnost and perestroika were the rage in the Soviet Union, and we hoped then, were coming closer to home.

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“The news in Miami this weekend is Gorbachev’s visit to Cuba,” I said as if I were just commenting on the weather in Moscow and Havana.

The president didn’t bite.

“Yes, I’ll answer questions about that at the podium later,” President Bush told me in as delicate and informal a tone as I had managed to sneak in the topic burning in my mind.

“Want me to autograph that menu?”

And without waiting for my “Of course!” he took the elegantly embossed menu card and signed it.

Those were the last words I exchanged with George HW Bush, the 41st president of the United States, who died Friday at 94.

I never found out why, of all the journalists invited to the White House that day, I was seated next to the president at the get-to-know-the-media lunch during Bush’s first year in office, on March 31, his 70th day in office.

But it was an honor — and a memory I treasure, particularly today when the nation mourns and remembers him. I can only thank President Bush for giving this Cuban-American from Miami the experience of a lifetime.

I remember a splendorous salon, adorned with red and yellow flowers and a giant portrait of Abraham Lincoln, who with his hand on his chin and a pensive air, seemed to be observing us. The television cameras, in a row at the back, were turned off during lunch, as Bush also had requested.

The president walked in greeting everyone, and at our table, he broke the ice quickly by telling us that the beautiful plates with red borders on which we would be eating were part of the pricey, headline-making china bought by former First Lady Nancy Reagan. We had a good laugh at his “don’t break it” insinuation.

Without a doubt, the best part of the hour we spent with the man in charge of the nation was with the personable George Bush — father, grandfather, a fan of baseball and horseshoe pitching. He didn’t boast about it, but later I learned that he could hook the horseshoe three out of 10 times, an average considered respectable.

He was still in awe on this day of all the history that surrounded him at the White House. He told us that in front of his office was Lincoln’s bedroom, where the original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, the document that gave slaves in Confederate-held lands their freedom, is kept.

Still, he said, “The ambiance is both of home and museum.”

President George Bush is seen at work behind his desk in the Oval Office, 1989. (AP Photo) AP Photo

When they brought us on silver plates beef tenderloin in Bordelaise sauce, he quipped before serving himself quite the heap of meat: “I’m treating you like royalty!”

He was the most relaxed person on that table.

The conversation between just the two of us flowed naturally to the topic of his son, Jeb, a Miamian, and his family. The president spoke of them with endearment, and before he knew it, I was asking him if Jeb would run as lieutenant governor when Gov. Bob Martinez ran for re-election, the speculation in Miami.

“He has been asked,” he confessed. “But I’m not sure he’s going to. He’s worried about paying for his children’s education.”

At that moment, our conversation was so animated that I almost said, “Oh, that’s what grandfathers are for!” But, all of a sudden, I felt the weight of who I was talking to and I thought I shouldn’t be telling the president of the United States that he should pay for his grandchildren’s college.

He had nothing to worry about on that end. After losing his first race to Democratic incumbent Lawton Chiles by two percentage points, Jeb Bush would become Florida’s first Republican two-term governor from 1999 to 2007.

U.S. President George Bush and his wife Barbara, seated in the center, pose with their children and grandchildren at Camp David, Md., in 1989. (AP Photo) AP Photo

That unforgettable day, lunch behind us, President Bush did briefly address newsy topics at our table.

Of the TV Marti broadcasts to Cuba, he said: “We have to make sure they air.”

About visiting Miami: “I’d like to visit but it would have to be a quick one-day visit.”

But not a word about my question on what he was expecting from Mijail Gorbachev’s much-anticipated trip to Cuba. Anything he would have said would’ve been front page news, I told my tablemate on the other side, an NBC correspondent from New York.

When the president left our table and took to the podium, the cameras were turned on and all of us eagerly raised our hands to be called on for a question. But that only marked the loss of my access.

The president only took questions from those journalists farthest from our coveted end of the room.

Other topics dominated the press conference: the oil spill in Alaska, U.S. aid to Nicaraguan rebels, the election of Alfredo Cristiani in El Salvador, and the visit to Washington of Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

I would write my front page story on the aid to the anti-Sandinista forces fighting leftist Daniel Ortega, and with time come to learn, that despite Gorbachev’s opening of the Soviet Union, Cuba would remain a bastion of Communist totalitarian rule.

But I’m still holding a friendly grudge on my unanswered question.

RIP, Mr. President.

I remember our time fondly.

Follow Fabiola Santiago on Twitter, @fabiolasantiago