President George H. W. Bush was on his way to the small, stone-walled church where he worshiped while at his Maine home each summer. But first, there was a piece of news that called for his response.
As The Times’ White House reporter on that trip to Kennebunkport, I was in the small rotating “pool” of journalists assigned to cover the president when he was in a public setting too small to accommodate the full press corps. Bush spoke to us that Sunday morning outside his home, preferring that setting because he thought it improper to conduct business on the church grounds.
The brief, informal news conference wound up quickly, and the reporters, photographers and camera crew climbed into two passenger vans for the one-mile trip in the presidential motorcade along Ocean Avenue from the Bush family compound, Walker’s Point, to St. Ann’s Episcopal Church.
I’ve long forgotten what overseas news development drew the president’s attention that morning. What I remember is what happened next: Rather than get into his Secret Service-driven armored SUV, the president of the United States was outside my van, trying to tell the few reporters inside something he seemed to think was easily as important as the news development to which he had just spoken.
He was very animated. Still, we couldn’t hear him through the van’s windows so out we climbed and gathered around him once more.
Yanking up his trouser cuffs, he said, “I saw you looking at my shoes,” though I don’t think anyone had noticed them at that point. They were made of cream-hued soft leather — the sort he might wear on a leisurely walk around the compound but not a match for the proper blue business suit he was wearing to church. Then, he called attention to his white athletic socks — no match for the suit, either.
“I’m wearing these shoes because they are the only ones that go with these socks,” he said, as I remember the scene. “I’m wearing these socks because I’m playing tennis after church, and don’t want to take the time to change them.”
In both the peculiar footwear and his readiness to call attention to it, was the essence, I thought, of the charming quirkiness he could exhibit at the most unsuspected moments.
Gerstenzang covered the Bush White House for The Times.