I’ll start with Carter, himself. My mother once told me that frequently you can tell how smart a person is by the intensity in his or her eyes. When former President Carter entered a Stanford classroom in the mid-80s, yes, I noticed his alert eyes, because they twinkled as he scanned the room, smiling away. I was one of several journalists sitting there for his mini press conference.
Within seconds, I knew I was not watching him on TV, where he had appeared to me like a folksy peanut farmer, who should be dressed in blue jeans. But in this classroom, he was different. He was very alert, quick to respond, answered every question. His demeanor was that of an honest, caring person. I sat up and listened intently, because he was so bright and articulate.
John F. Kennedy was the president I saw -- at his inauguration. It was a very cold day in Washington, D.C. My husband and I drove in from Arlington, VA, where we had a small apartment. Virginians don't like the snow much – and they didn't know how to drive in it, so many inaugural invitees stayed home. The snow-covered roads didn’t even challenge my husband, who was from Chicago.
We easily parked and found a place where we could stand for the ceremony, just behind the several rows of chairs next to the stage. I was clad in my heaviest coat, scarf and woolen gloves. The wind was strong and stinging. When poet Robert Frost got up to introduce JFK, his papers fell to the ground, and Frost went down after them. It took him a good minute and I worried about this aging from Ripton VT, but his introduction went fine.
When it was time for Kennedy to give his inaugural address, the president-to-be took off his coat and scarf and stood there in a gray suit. I shivered and thought it takes a lot of attributes to be strong, , and standing in the cold 20-degree weather for almost an hour, wearing just a business suit certainly qualified him as a man who could brave the freezing temperature.
When Kennedy delivered the words, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," we all applauded. It challenged every American to think of others in their country, a message that has worn well over the decades.
Once he had taken the oath of office, the group on the stage walked into the Capitol building for an elegant luncheon. Yes, Jackie was wearing her pillbox hat. My husband and I walked down the street and bought hot dogs from a vendor – with relish! The streets were filled with the amplified sounds of Handel's "Royal Fireworks Music." The ceremony and parade that followed seemed so dignified, so elegant. This was indeed a refined couple.
I was living in Sunnyvale when Lyndon Johnson's official inauguration was held. I watched on TV the goings-on, recalling what happened four years earlier. The music was still pouring out of the loudspeakers on the streets – but this time it was "Yellow Rose of Texas.”
I was working for the Mercury News as a member of the Editorial Board when I saw Ronald Reagan, presidential candidate. As the three of us staffers drove up 101 for our appointment at the Fairmont Hotel, we practiced our questions – “I will ask this and if he doesn’t fully answer…. The editorial writer next to me said, Then I will rephrase the question and tell him we hope he will answer it in detail.” That planning didn’t work out too well.
Lyn Nofziger, Reagan’s campaign aide, met us in the lobby, and we went to Reagan's suite. The presidential candidate came from his room, wearing a striped white shirt with his initials on the pocket. His face was a healthy pink, and he looked quite relaxed.
"How do you feel about building more nuclear bombs?" we asked. "Well, Nancy and I were just talking about that yesterday, and we don't have an answer yet," he replied. "And how do you feel about limited nuclear war, relying on fewer and less powerful bombs?" I asked.
"That reminds me of the walk we took in our garden last week when we saw a garden snake in the middle of our path and then watched him disappear into the flower patch." I wondered if there was some analogy or hidden message I was missing.
Just then, Nancy walked into the room dressed in a red suit, and hat. (Nancy was shorter than I expected but her head was a bit out of proportion to her body. I wondered how the movie camera men photographed her in proportion.) They hugged, then together left the room for a good eight minutes of our 45-minute time allotment. "She must be going for a long trip?" I asked Nofziger. "Oh no, just overnight," he answered.
When I saw the Clinton family, Bill and Hillary were at Stanford visiting Chelsea. The daughter's hair was frizzier then, but it was apparent she would become a very attractive woman. Bill and Hillary were smiling and waving.
After that, I saw Hillary standing on Air Force One, in Johannesburg, South Africa airport, going down the ramp to meet Nelson Mandela for his inauguration. While there, I had a chance to visit Bishop Desmond Tutu at his home where he was scheduled for a press conference.
No other reporters came, so I began by asking him whether American universities’ efforts to divest helped South Africa. “(without divestment), it couldn’t have happened without their help,” Tutu replied.
Tutu took us out back where he entertained my son, Kent, and his wife, who were with me. Kent was 6’5”, tall, blond, and wearing a red tee shirt; the bishop was 5’ 7” or so, wearing his red cassock and had black hair. Tutu climbed up on a small brick wall surrounding a pond and turned to Kent, saying, “I am trying to reach your level so we can talk.” My son replied, “Sir, I will never reach your level.”
The last president I saw in real time was Bill Clinton, along with Hillary and Chelsea, when the parents were visiting their daughter at Stanford. It was a happy, smiling family occasion, and Bill said a couple of words to the assembled. It was a nice moment, and updates my presidential live memory book.