Culture

Farewell to Our Horseshoe President

President George H.W. Bush after delivering an address to the nation from the White House in 1991. (Reuters)
Bush 41 loved to play the game and even installed a pit on the White House lawn.

During a window in time, there was job in the White House called the Horseshoe Commissioner. You might be surprised to know such a position existed — but it did, at least unofficially, according to President George H. W. Bush.

Early in his presidency, I was the White House Horseshoe Commissioner. Twenty-one years old, fresh out of college, and a new member of the president’s small personal staff, I was in way over my head. And the president, he was passionate about playing horseshoes. It was something he played with his family and friends, visiting heads of state, celebrities, and members of Congress. It was also his way to unwind, break the ice, do casual business, or just get the competitive juices flowing.

The “pit” was conveniently located behind the Oval Office next to the White House swimming pool. It was his creation — something not seen at the White House since Harry Truman. And there was a whole foreign language associated with his horseshoe play. Phrases like “Vic Damone!” for a win, “Ugly Shoe!” for a bad toss, or “Power Outage!” for a horseshoe that failed to reach the clay. He was “Mr. Smooth” when he’d throw a ringer.

On occasion, I would be called by President Bush from my normal duties to officiate a match or render a ruling on whether a throw was in fact a ringer, or which shoe was closer to the stake. Calipers were used to measure which horseshoe got the coveted point. In time, I earned a moniker of affection from him, “The Commissioner,” finding the president jokingly credentialing my “integrity” to his opponent of the day. He would announce regally that I was “fair and just” and that my rulings had never been reversed by the “Horseshoe Czar” — him.

The president hosted two horseshoe tournaments for the staff each year: The Fall Classic and the Sweet Sixteen Invitational. With multiple rounds and a loser’s bracket, each tournament would last about a month. They were legendary. The job of the White House Horseshoe Commissioner was to help him pull off those events. Staff teams of two competed for all the glory. But it was not the staff you might expect. At the insistence of the president, teams came from the unsung offices that make the White House tick: The White House electricians, butlers, groundskeepers, motor pool, chefs, ushers, carpenters, Marine sentries, and Secret Service details all had teams. So, too, did the president and his son, Marvin. Mrs. Bush would set the brackets, in a semi-formal ceremony, by pulling teams randomly out of a ballcap.

The president was competitive, too. He would want briefings on specific matches in the tournament and scouting reports on opponents. In 1990, only moments before he was to welcome Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at an official state-visit ceremony on the South Lawn, our small staff was standing with the president just outside the Oval Office. As he got ready to walk across the Rose Garden to meet Mr. Gorbachev, President Bush turned back to ask whom he was playing in the second round of the tournament and say he wanted me to get a scouting report on the electricians. After the president unexpectedly lost to those same electricians in a sweep, I ran into his steward, Domingo, in the hall of the West Wing. “The president very, very upset,” he told me. “Bad mood. He lose at horseshoes.”

The best horseshoe team was the Housemen, led by Ron Jones, a man with the swagger and physique of an NFL lineman. One evening before the big semifinals, the trash talking reached a crescendo, and the president (who was already out of the tournament) had had enough. He shed his suit coat to take on Ron mano-a-mano in a one-game grudge match to see who was the “King of the Pit.” It lasted just 5 minutes, and the president won 21–0. The next day, the president teased him, “Ron I just want to know, did I make you nervous, you know, playing the president of the United States?” It might have been his greatest horseshoe victory. A photo from that day hung in the kitchen of his post-presidency office in Houston.

For the finals of the tournaments, he would invite the staff and their families to the White House to watch in person. Awards would be presented. I remember a “No Broccoli” shirt. More good-natured teasing might ensue. Perhaps an impromptu match with the president himself might break out. The winner had his or her name engraved on a wooden horseshoe box that would end up at the presidential library. It all had the feel of a family barbecue.

At one of the finals, as the sun went down, the president worried that the women attending were getting cold and went to find sweatshirts to warm them. At the conclusion of another, a longtime member of the ushers’ office came to me excitedly. In all his years in the White House, he had never been invited to anything but a Christmas reception. He said that afternoon was the most thrilling moment of his 45 years of service. Those were the little moments that mattered to George H. W. Bush.

Former senior adviser and friend Ron Kaufman said it best: President Bush was “master of the small gesture.” The handwritten note, a word of thanks, his endearing humor, the show of concern for a person hurting. Everyone who knew or worked for him was touched by him in a way that likely improved the trajectory of their life. It was his daily example of grace that made us want to be better people. It still does.

On my last day in the White House, he asked me into the Oval Office and presented those same horseshoe calipers mounted on a block of wood, with the inscription, “White House Horseshoe Commissioner 1989–1990: His rulings have never been reversed.” The master of the small gesture.

The president’s greatness, leadership, and generosity will be written about for years by the amazing men and women who helped him make history. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the unification of Germany, the liberation of Kuwait, the Americans with Disabilities Act. As a young aide with a front-row seat, I was a blessed observer doing my bit to help a good man, but I was not one who truly helped make history. However, when it comes to horseshoes, well, that’s a different story. That’s a story I can write.

Horseshoes at the White House was the perfect embodiment of George H. W. Bush. Competitive, yet considerate. A sense of humor and lightheartedness brought to a deadly serious job. And more importantly, a way to make the oftentimes overlooked people feel special. Every person was important to him. The definition of decency.

One of the last times I saw the president was in Houston a few years ago, when I brought my two children to his office to meet him for the first time. Parkinson’s made it hard for him to speak. My son and daughter were standing on either side of his wheelchair, just the two of them and the president. My wife and I were a few feet away talking to his aide, when the president pulled the kids down close and said in a hushed whisper, “I love your dad.” The ultimate small gesture. Today, those same kids, now young adults, pitch shoes at our cabin high in the mountains of Montana. On some nights, as the sun sets and the stars begin to emerge, I watch them from the back deck and think about him.

This week, sitting in the National Cathedral, I fought back inevitable tears as the majestic church bells tolled outside. Only the sound I heard was subtly different. It sounded more like the sweet clanking of horseshoes on a warm spring evening. It was the sound of the greatest man I ever knew.

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