Senior writer Curry Kirkpatrick will never forget his first glimpse of the Oval Office. "Staggeringly huge," recalls Kirkpatrick. "President Bush stands up and says, 'How ya doin'?' and it takes about 10 minutes to walk across the room to reach him."
It took another 10 minutes, says Kirkpatrick, to realize that he was actually talking to the President of the United States "and not Dana Carvey impersonating him. It can be pretty disorienting if you watch a lot of Saturday Night Live."
This not-so-historic meeting took place last August, four days after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were also scheduled to meet with Bush that day, as was NATO commander Manfred Woerner. "I was sure I'd be scratched," says Kirkpatrick.
Not only did Bush keep the appointment, which was scheduled to run for 30 minutes, but he also shooed away impatient aides (whom Kirkpatrick dubbed "the schedule police") who sought to end the interview. Kirkpatrick ended up spending 90 minutes with the President.
The war forced the postponement of Kirkpatrick's visit to the Bush summer compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, which had been planned for the following week. Kirkpatrick's disappointment was keen: As a longtime tennis buff, he had been looking forward to playing tennis with Bush. But the President extended him a rain check for this August. When on May 9 it was announced that Bush had Graves' disease, a hyperthyroid condition, Kirkpatrick had this unusual reaction: "He's ducking me!"
Medication brought what Bush calls "the thyroid thing" under control, and the visit was on. Kirkpatrick's account of his two days at play with America's intensely sporting First Family—which includes cameo appearances by Chief of Staff John Sununu and Robert Gates, Bush's nominee to head the CIA—begins on page 32.
Kirkpatrick came away from Kennebunkport impressed with the 67-year-old Bush's athleticism, robust health and his proficiency in another time-honored American pastime: "He really gets into heckling," says Kirkpatrick, who became the target of Bush's unsolicited commentary during a horseshoe-pitching contest. Barbara Bush doesn't pitch shoes, but she joined the harassment. "I knew you were an elitist when I saw your clothes," she said upon hearing that Kirkpatrick was from Hilton Head Island, S.C.
Bush proved he could take as well as he gives. When Kirkpatrick's horseshoes teammate, Mary Ann Chandler, of the White House medical corps, covered a ringer by Bush with one of her own, Kirkpatrick crowed, "Headline: Bush gets face job!" To Kirkpatrick's vast relief, the President laughed.
DAVID VALDEZ/THE WHITE HOUSE
Kirkpatrick and the President did the tennis thing.