SPRINGFIELD – When I heard last week that Barbara Bush had died, I couldn’t help but think of the Bush family and how my first year as a journalist was intertwined with their political endeavors.
Back in 1988, I was a freshly minted reporter, with more hubris than common sense, and Barbara’s husband, then-Vice President George Bush, was running for president.
Like interns the world over, I wanted to leave a good first impression. So, I was thrilled to learn that the vice president would be visiting Springfield on my first full day on the job.
I wondered whether I’d cover his speech or his news conference. It never occurred to me that my boss might want to cover those things himself. After all, it was the vice president and possible future president. That’s not the sort of assignment usually given to a rookie intern on his first day of the job.
My boss eyed me and said, “I’ve got an important job for you, kid. You’ve got ‘death watch duty.’ You’ll go to the Springfield airport and watch to see if the vice president’s plane crashes.”
It would seem he wanted the eager intern out of his hair. Interestingly enough, the intern in the news bureau next door, Debbie Fleishman, received the same assignment.
We decided to ride together to the airport in my Ford Mustang. Our press credentials dangled from the rearview mirror on that blustery January day.
The vice president’s plane, Air Force Two, was scheduled to land at the Springfield Airport at exactly noon.
We left at 11:30 a.m., thinking that was plenty of time for the 10-minute drive from the Statehouse to the airport.
We got lost.
After wandering for 20 minutes, we found the airport.
A sheriff’s deputy checked our press passes and told us to just follow the direction of the deputies posted through the airport. And deputy after deputy waved us on. I glanced at my Timex and noted that it was 11:58 and we still weren’t yet in place.
I was worried. This was my first professional assignment, and I didn’t want to screw it up. But another deputy waved us on.
At 11:59 a.m., it dawned on me that Air Force Two was to land at noon, and I was not driving on a street. I was driving down the middle of the runway.
Men in suits carrying guns ran toward us, waving their arms and motioning for us to stop.
My Ford screeched to a stop near the exact spot the jumbo jet was to land.
Secret Service agents rolled the car onto the grass along the airstrip’s edge. They searched the vehicle and let us go moments before the plane landed.
Several months later, the vice president returned to Springfield with his wife, and they toured a Sangamon County farm. On that sweltering day, the farmer, Raymond Poe, took them to a clay knoll in the middle of a cornfield and talked about how the drought was hurting farmers.
I remember Barbara Bush sitting on a bale of straw wearing pearls and an expensive suit surrounded by withered corn plants. It must be hell to be a political spouse.
The only thing I remember about the story I wrote was my editor telling me I couldn’t refer to the vice president of the United States as the “veepster.”
Later that year, I was working for the Galveston Daily News, and one of the vice president’s sons, a fellow by the name of George W., was giving a stump speech for his dad in the city.
My city editor assigned the story to me, and I said, “Why are we covering him? He hasn’t done anything of consequence. He’s just related to someone famous.”
The editor looked at me and just said, “Go.”
I went and met George W. and heard folks say, “He may go into politics just like his daddy.”
I just rolled my eyes. He was an friendly enough fellow, but I couldn’t imagine him ever getting elected to anything significant.
That just goes to show you, some folks can have a bit too much confidence and not enough common sense. Hopefully, I’ve picked up a bit more horse sense in the past three decades, but my wife might dispute that.
But at least looking back on that year, it keeps me humble.
Note to readers: Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area and produces the podcast Suspect Convictions. He can be reached at ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.