I have met two presidents in my lifetime, and was impressed with both. And I almost met a third one, but didn’t take advantage of the opportunity. I have never regretted not meeting him.
The first one I met was Lyndon Johnson. We were on Guam flying B-52s in 1966. President Lyndon Johnson and President of South Vietnam Nyuen Cao Ky were meeting there. We had to stand at attention around the flag for inspection that Saturday morning.
I stayed up until midnight spit polishing my shoes. I had the best shine on them ever. We had been required to keep them spit shined in our flight schools at James Connally AFB and Mather AFB. But after we got out we didn’t bother with it too much. There was a joke that some guys polished their shoes with chocolate bars.
But the president put my shine to shame. His shoes were the best looking and the shiniest I have ever seen. We knew he had a butler that took care of his shoes and clothes, but we were still impressed.
He had on a Brooks Brothers suit that must have cost him $2,000, or about $10,000 in today’s money. It was the best looking suit I have ever seen. He looked and acted powerful.
When he got to our crew, he stopped and said, “Gentlemen, how are you this fine morning?”
“We’re great, sir,” we all said in unison. The whole inspection, which we had been working on for two days, was over in about 15 minutes. The president got back in his limo and we were dismissed.
The next president I met was William Jefferson Clinton. He was governor of Arkansas when I met him in 1984. We were helping George Nigh run for a second term as governor of Oklahoma and he won, becoming the first governor to win a second term in that state. George had been lieutenant governor for 24 years before that, also a record.
Mayor Newcomb asked me to go with him to a dinner in Fort Smith that day. I picked him up and drove the two of us over in his car. When we got there we found Gov. Nigh and the Arkansas governor, a young guy, sitting on the dais. After dinner we got to meet and greet with both.
Clinton was six feet two inches tall and weighed about 200 pounds that night. I got to shake his hand and meet him briefly after the dinner and knew he had “it.”
Bill Clinton in February 2013.
When I got back home I told my wife Toni that I should send my resume to him and go to work for him. “He is going places,” I told her.
“Where would we have to live?” she asked.
“In Little Rock,” I answered.
“I’m not going to Little Rock,” she said. I understood. She was having enough trouble living in Broken Arrow and Tulsa. She is Mexican and looks it, which I like. I think Mexicans are the best people in the world. But she was being discriminated against in Oklahoma.
She would be shopping and take her perfume or her blouse to the checkout counter—the clerks would wait on the blonde women behind her before they waited on her. They thought she was an Indian, I’m sure, and Indians in Oklahoma are treated like black people are treated in Mississippi. And that’s really bad. I was stationed in Mississippi for two years, so don’t ask me to go back there.
I learned later that George Snuffaluppagus, his press guy during Clinton’s first term, had come on board with him shortly after that. So I could have been one of the guys working directly with Bill Clinton when he was in the White House as president. Oh, well.
The one I almost met was Jimmy Carter, in 1975. I had been in D.C. reading proposals for a week. I had to go through Atlanta on the way back, change planes, and fly to San Francisco. On the way to my seat in about row 30 I passed a familiar looking face in row 12. It was Jimmy Carter and his aide, Hamilton Jordan, pronounced Jurdon.
Jimmy was running for president already, about March 1975, and no one gave him a chance. When someone told Averill Harriman that Jimmy Carter, the former governor of Georgia, was running for president, Averill said, “How can he run for president? I don’t even know him.”
National Archives and Records Administration
Averill had been governor of New York, ambassador to Russia in World War II, and a picker of presidents. He had picked both Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy. So imagine his surprise the next year when this unknown Georgia politician won. Carter promised people, in the wake of the Nixon scandal, “I will never lie to you.” Of course he tried not to lie, but as with all other presidents, he had to. Just little white ones, of course.
When I got to the back of the plane and found my seat, I asked the people around me, “Do you know who that guy is in row 12?” Nobody knew, and they said he had no chance of winning. But the campaign that Ham put together let Jimmy win. Of course he lost the second time, to the lightweight from California, Ronald Reagan.
We proceeded to have a party in the back, the only airplane where we had a party. We ordered drinks, stood up, walked around, told jokes, and had a good time. I thought I would send Gov. Carter my resume, but never did. But one of the geography professors who was on my hall at Cal State Hayward ran his campaign in California and got an ambassadorship to Belgium or Luxembourg out of it. Greg Schneiders got hired later to be his chauffeur and then got hired as Appointment Secretary, one of the most powerful positions in the White House.
I never really got involved in politics until 1984. A bunch of us got involved in the rotten Democratic party of Wagner County, Oklahoma and threw the bums out. My neighbor Dick ran for chairman, our friend from the east side of the county ran for vice, and I ran for treasurer. We won, even though the old guard fought us all the way to the top. Clayton Raglin had run it for over 20 years, and it upset him to no end that we won. We got 73 percent of the vote to his 27 percent, but he would not give up easily.
We also put Elmer Sheppard into office as Sheriff, ousting a slightly rotten guy named Clyde who used to beat people in the face with flashlights. Clyde had retired as a policeman in Tulsa, run for sheriff, and ran for re-election. Elmer was a stand-up guy who ran a fence business.
In 1983, Roger Jourdain, Wendell Chino, Ada Deer, Ruby Ludwig and I formed First Americans for Mondale. We ran a game campaign, but Mondale lost to Reagan, who stayed in for a second term. It broke my heart when Fritz Mondale said at the convention that he would raise taxes. As a politician you never say you would raise taxes. Lie like George H. W. Bush (“read my lips”) and say you will never do it. Ada was Clinton’s first Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs.
I continued with political involvement after I got settled in Albuquerque. I was one of “Marty’s Boys” who put Martin Chavez in as Mayor in 1993. He lost for governor in 1998, won for mayor again in 2001 and 2005. He is still the best mayor we have ever had. The one we have now is arresting people who protest in his office. We hold the world record in Albuquerque of the most police shootings in history. Mayor Berry defends the police who kill people.
Dr. Dean Chavers has worked at Catching the Dream, a national scholarship program for Native college students, for 28 years. His latest book is “Racism in Indian Country.” CTD will make major grants to Indian schools this year to help them improve. He is also the author of “Reading for College,” which every high and middle school should have.