Week of 7.5.2009
"The President would like to meet you"
           The daily newspaper in Oregon City, Oregon didn’t have a large circulation, but it was a well thought of publication in its area – near Portland. It had thousands of loyal readers and an excellent staff of reporters and support staff.
          On this particular summer day in 1976 I was sitting in my office as publisher of the newspaper, answering questions about journalism, posed by a group of seven 8th grade students from the area. The infamous Watergate scandal was still on people’s minds, so many of the questions from the students were about the more adventurous and dramatic parts of being a newsperson. I’m sure that a few of the students in my office pictured themselves as young Woodwards and Bernsteins – more likely as Robert Redfords and Dustin Hoffmans, who portrayed the two Washington Post reporters in the movie, “All the President’s Men.”
           The questions the kids asked were good ones. In response I had to be truthful and tell them that much of the job of being a reporter is extremely boring – like attending city council meetings at night and reporting on meetings about school and sewer taxes. I told them there are times when a reporter’s most urgent task would be to stay awake.
            As I continued my “reality thesis” about journalism I saw the student’s faces turn from eager anticipation to mild disappointment. They were getting the idea that being a newsperson didn’t have as many exciting moments as they had imagined.
            Then the phone on my desk rang. I could see the receptionist from my desk, so I waved at her to hold the call in deference to the seven students in my office. The receptionist looked agitated and signaled me to pick up the phone. She lip mimed, “It’s important!” I lip mimed back to her, “Hold the call.”
           I watched as the receptionist left her chair, walked to my office, opened the door and said, “Please pick up the phone, it’s the White House calling.” I looked at the receptionist and then towards the seven kids. The receptionist’s eyes were open wider than I had ever seen them. She was excited. The kids started fidgeting in their chairs.
           Picking up the phone, I said, “Hello, this is Ron, may I help you?” The reply came back, “Hello, Mr. Cruger, this is the White House calling. President Ford is coming to Portland in two weeks and he would like to meet you. Would you be available?”
           Amazed for a moment, reality returned. I said, “Okay, okay, who is this. C’mon, I’m busy.” The business- like voice on the other end responded, a bit annoyed, “Mr. Cruger, I’m a White House Press Secretary, President Ford is inviting you to his hotel suite next month. Would you like to meet him?”
           I glanced at the seven kids, gave them a wink and a “Hold on, I’ll be off the phone in a second” look. I was starting to get vexed.
          “Look,” I said, “Who is this? Enough is enough.” I heard the frustration in her voice, “Mr. Cruger, this is the White House. Would you like to meet President Ford, he wants to meet you. Please answer.”
            By now I thought there might be a possibility of this not being a joke. I cupped my hand over the mouthpiece of the phone and said to the kids, “This is the White House, they want me to meet President Ford.” Ironic that only a few moments before I was telling the kids that being a newsperson could be agonizingly dull.
           I became a stunned believer. “Yes, yes, this is Ron Cruger. Sure, I’d like to meet the President. When, where, how come, sure, yes. I’d love to.”
           The White House Press Secretary explained, “We’ll send you the date, where you should be and all the other information shortly. By the way, when is your birthday? When is your sister’s birthday?” I gave the dates and we hung up.
           I told the students what had transpired – that I was going to meet President Ford. I tried to act casual. The kids leaned forward in their chairs, anxious to hear the details. I told them and shortly after they left for a tour of the newspaper presses. They were, no doubt, suitably impressed despite my attempt to communicate the terrestrial aspects of being a newspaper reporter.
           The day to meet President Ford dawned and at the appropriate time I was in the hotel lobby, which was swarming with Secret Service dark suits and earphones. I had to sign in and was told by one of the Secret Service men, “Take the elevator to the eleventh floor.” I did and when the elevator door opened I took one step forward and was greeted by two large men in dark suits. The one closest to me asked, “Sir, what is your date of birth?” I told him. The other dark suit asked, “What is your sister’s date of birth?” I stated the day and year and in my anxiety I misstated the year. As a result I felt strong hands on each of my arms guide me down the hallway. The taller of the Secret Service men looked me in my eye and asked, “Say again. When is your sister’s birthday?” I took a moment, realized my error and corrected it. With a dark suit on either side of me I was escorted to the door of the Presidential suite.
           Sitting on the couch were the Editor of the Daily Oregonian and the lead area reporter from United Press International. I joined them on the couch. We were the three newspapermen selected to meet President Ford. Sprinkled around the room were six Secret Service men, a White House Press Secretary and an unidentified man who was carrying the “black bag” which contains the information and means to conduct nuclear war.
           Suddenly, a door opens and the President of the United States, the most powerful person in the world, enters. We stand and introduce ourselves. I know my voice cracked when it was my turn. 
          President Ford pulled up a chair facing the couch. He told us about the current state of world affairs and when finished asked, “Do you have any questions?” Each of us had two or three which President Ford answered succinctly. We chatted for over an hour. President Ford was direct, informative, friendly, warm and impressive.
          As the meeting drew to an end the Press Secretary stood and said, “Thank you Mr. President and thank you gentlemen.” We all stood. The President left the room. The Secret Service men stretched their arms and legs. I followed their example and stretched. Then I noticed a table with packs of cigarettes, pens, napkins, note pads and calendars – all embossed with the Presidential Seal. I swept a supply of each item into my coat pockets, thinking that the Secret Service men wouldn’t notice. We all said our goodbyes and as I headed for the door to leave one of the Secret Service men brushed by me and said softly, “It’s okay, we know.” I’m sure my face set a record for turning different shades of red.
           It’s been almost 30-years since that day I met President Ford. I had met President Kennedy before that day and President Carter after.
          It is a unique and overpowering feeling to meet the President of the United States. It’s also a unique feeling to get busted by the Secret Service for pilfering some Presidential napkins, note pads and ball point pens. Thinking of it I still turn different shades of red.
The author meets President Ford
Ron Cruger
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This column previously appeared on The Spectator
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