I met George H.W. Bush in 1992, during a campaign swing of his through San Diego on my 12th birthday, just two months before his crushing loss to Bill Clinton. My mom’s boyfriend, Larry, who would eventually become my stepfather, was a local businessman who had been invited to a fundraiser for the president and he brought us along to the event.
I was ecstatic to meet President Bush, but I also saw an opportunity. At the time, I was running for vice president of my middle school and was hurtling toward a likely defeat against one of the most popular girls in the school. In truth, I had no business even running. I was still a new kid, having only moved to the neighborhood a year before, and I was unathletic and tragically uncool. But I was passionate about politics and determined to be on the student council. An endorsement from the president, I thought, might catapult me over my opponent. My dad, still an ever present part of my life after the divorce, helped me make “Luke Hartig for Vice President” pins and schemed with me on how I could give one to President Bush.
As the big day approached, my mom scrambled to make me presentable for the president of the United States. She bought me a blazer, a heathered double-breasted number with too long sleeves. But as a single mom raising three boys, she really couldn’t afford the jacket, and she made me leave the tag on so that she could return it after the event. Larry leant me a tie. I doused my bangs with gel to nail the perfect wave and ran a comb through my mullet and I was ready to roll.
After waiting for some time at a fancy downtown hotel, the president swept into the room, larger than life, a tall man seemingly made taller by his thin physique and high forehead, and wearing lightly the confidence of the presidency. Our first interaction was in the photo line, when I told the president about my own campaign and asked if he might hold my campaign pin in the photo. The president smiled, pushed my mom and Larry aside, and asked that only he and I be in the photo together. Later that evening, Larry told the president that it was my birthday. He smiled again, looked down and took off his tie clip — a gold bar with the official seal of the president of the United States on the front and his engraved signature on the back — and handed it to me. “Happy birthday, young man,” he said. I beamed in appreciation. The old men around me looked on with envy.
That night, we rushed to get my mom’s film developed. The professional photo wouldn’t arrive for several weeks, and I needed to get my campaign posters up. But her point-and-shoot camera had a flash malfunction, and the pictures came out blurry. The photos still clearly showed me with President Bush but more like a washed-out pic from a drunken night out than a formal picture with the president. But I made do with what I had and wallpapered the school with the blurry photos.
The cries of fake news were near immediate. Within hours of the photos going up, the great cardboard cutout scandal of Prospect Avenue School took hold. I had allegedly not met the president but only a life-size facsimile. My insistence that the photo was real fell on deaf ears.
I attempted to salvage my campaign with an ill-advised hip hop shout out in my official campaign speech. It bombed. Further mockery ensued. I was crushed by my rival; the only mercy being that the school did not release official vote counts. No way I cracked 10 percent of the vote. I would leave the school by the end of the semester, pushed out by bullying.
But that picture has stayed with me. The president smiling with all the sincerity that he would have brought to a young Republican congressional candidate, confidently holding up my campaign pin, taking me seriously. Me smiling nervously, not sure how to hold my 12-year-old body as a general matter, much less in a jacket and tie, and graced but intimidated by being next to a great man. The photo sat on my desk all through college and ever since, including my time in the Obama White House, giving me little bursts of inspiration when I needed it. It’s a reminder that no matter how important you are or how bad things might be going, a real leader takes time to be kind to even the most insignificant people around him. And that the power of the most important person in the world may lie just as much in the impact of his example as the authorities he wields.