A column by former Freeman Courier publisher Tim L. Waltner
George H.W. Bush is the first U.S. president I met, although at the time he was vice president in the Reagan administration.
It was 1982 and the South Dakota Press Association (today the South Dakota Newspaper Association) was celebrating its 100th anniversary. To make the celebration special, SDPA invited the vice president to attend the organization’s annual convention, held that year in Sioux Falls. He accepted and joined us as the keynote speaker for the awards banquet on Friday night, April 16.
As part of the event, SDPA members were given the opportunity for a “meet and greet” session with Vice President Bush. We gathered just before the banquet for a one-by-one – or as in our case, couple-by-couple – opportunity to meet the vice president for a handshake and a very short conversation.
The room was filled with security and it was highly structured and rigid process. When Bix and I got to the front of the line, we walked up to him and he immediately greeted us and asked where we were from. He was courteous, warm and welcoming; it was a very comfortable interaction. After the usual pleasantries, we took the opportunity to tell him of our concerns about the increasing global proliferation of nuclear weapons. He listened to us without challenge and actually told us he agreed it was an issue that deserved attention.
It was the highest-level significant conversation we’d ever had and, I admit, it was pretty cool to talk about something beyond “it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
The evening events continued as planned with the formal banquet in the downtown Holiday Inn. Vice President Bush was seated at the head table with secret service agents, South Dakota Highway Patrol officers and hotel security strategically positioned all around the room and focused on everyone of us in the room, it seemed.
Quite frankly, I remember few details of his keynote address.
In his speech, Vice President Bush noted that several people had earlier shared their concerns with him about increasing global proliferation of nuclear weapons. He went on to say that it was an issue that he too was concerned about.
He said he supported “meaningful, verifiable real reduction in strategic nuclear weapons.”
I have no way of knowing to what degree – if any – our short conversation an hour earlier was a factor in his decision to include those comments. But, we were pleased to hear his support for nuclear arms reduction.
Here’s the rest of the story.
On July 31, 1991, President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, signed a bilateral Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as START I. It was the first treaty between the two superpowers that provided for deep cuts in their nuclear arsenals. Negotiations that led to the signing of that treaty had begun in May 1982 – just a month after his appearance in Sioux Falls.
The final implementation of that treaty in late 2001 resulted in the removal of about four-fifths of all strategic nuclear weapons then in existence.
I have no illusions that Bix and I had any impact on that whatsoever. But, I’m still glad we spoke out when we had the opportunity.
I had two more opportunities to see Vice President Bush. He visited Parker in November 1987 as part of his primary campaign for the Republican nomination for president. At the time, I thought it was the closest I’d get to a presidential campaign.
Little did I know that, less than three months later, he would be in Freeman. The 1988 campaign visit to the Freeman High School gym — today the Freeman Community Center — on Friday afternoon, Feb. 5 is one of those “one for the books” events in this community. We recalled that visit in a 30-year retrospective in the Feb. 8 issue of the Courier this year.
Tim L. Waltner, who was named editor of the Courier in 1973, has met many elected state and national elected officials in his role as a community journalist. In addition to George H.W. Bush, he met President Bill Clinton at the White House on two occasions.