I’m glad the back of the stage was dimly lit. It was me standing next two very intense Secret Service officers. I’m not sure if I was relieved or more nervous when I heard a voice from behind a curtain call out, “Come on in and have a seat next to me, Bill.” And so begins the story of my time with President George W. Bush.
The date was February 5th, 2016. I was at the Hilton Anatole Hotel in Dallas, Texas, attending the annual NEMRA Conference. This was the final event I would serve as NEMRA Chairman. Just like any other year, there was a massive amount of planning to be done leading up to the conference. The decision to have President Bush as the headline speaker was easy. Deciding on his speaking style was also fairly easy as he prefers to speak more in the style of a personal interview. But who would be the one asking the questions? Much to my surprise, NEMRA President and CEO Ken Hooper suggested it should be me. “Bill doesn’t know a stranger and doesn’t rattle easily.” Reflecting back, in the presence of #43 and the Secret Service agents, I can assure you this (self-described) opinionated, loudmouth redneck was most definitely rattled on the inside. And yet, somehow, President Bush was able to put me at ease.
Again, we are sitting backstage for 25 minutes to develop a friendly rapport before we take the stage. He’s all of two feet from me and I’m afraid even to take a sip of the water that’s in front of me. But he had a calming presence as though he was a beloved uncle I hadn’t seen for a number of years. He asks me to describe the audience that would be watching the interview. I replied, “The electrical industry is full of great individuals that work hard and don’t take things for granted.” I was also fortunate to have this time to introduce my wife and daughters to the President, for they are the greatest parts of life.
Before I knew it, our personal time was at an end. A voice from the stage asked everyone to please stand for the singing of the national anthem. I swear, NEVER had I been more proud to stand and let those words envelope my heart and mind as the woman eloquently pronounced, “Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light…” Here I am, shoulder-to-shoulder with one of the few men to have been the leader of the greatest nation in the world.
President Bush and I were then called to the stage where over 2,000 people we waiting for us. Again, for a guy who ‘never gets rattled,’ the moment was absolutely surreal. I remember looking at the back wall as we walked on stage only to see a Secret Service sniper with scoped rifle diligently scanning the crowd. All I could think was, “How the hell did I get here?” As I sat down, I could see a large clock at my feet counting down the hour I had to talk with him. I have attached the list of questions that I had with me, and I tried to get through as many of them as I could in the 58 min and 34 seconds we had on stage together.
In the middle of our discussion, I remember he had asked me to ask a specific question. He said, “Hey Bill, ask me about my interaction with Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin.” When the time seemed appropriate during our exchange, I was able to make the transition and served up the question just like he had asked. President Bush smiled and said, “You can learn a lot about the person you come in contact with if you watch and observe.” So, I watched and observed as he relayed the following story.
“Our dog Barney was not a favorite among the White House staff. He barked a lot and didn’t like many people. What he did have on his side was that he liked me, the President, so he was safe. Well, one day, Putin came to DC for a formal dinner and trade discussions. It was a big deal with all the pomp and circumstance you give a fellow dignitary. Upon arrival, Laura and I were standing in the front lawn to greet Putin and his wife. As we made our introductions, Barney came out of nowhere and started barking at them. I apologized for Barney’s greeting. Putin smiled and said nothing more.
The following visit between us was held in Russia. During the greetings once again, as if on que, out comes a very large dog. Putin spoke and the dog stopped on command. With a snarky smile, Putin looked at Laura and me and said, “Now this is an appropriate pet, don’t you think?” From that point on, I knew who he was and remembered that each time we would have discussions. He was a person who needs to feel powerful and had to show others he was in-charge. Knowing how important it was for him to show me his big, bad dog played his hand to me more than he would ever realize.”
I shared all of this with you today because the news is full of stories like “guys with a big, mean dog.” The news uses bias to strike fear into us all. I watch the news with all its negativity about this great country and it hurts me. I believe MOST Americans want the same things. We want our children to have more opportunities than we had. We want to be judged on our abilities and effort. We want to be able to live our lives without the fear of persecution or harm. We want to be a society of “great individuals that work hard and don’t take things for granted.” What I won’t accept is that the opinion that a majority of society is mean, cruel, unwilling to help. If we pay close attention, we need to judge when the story is someone “playing their hand more than they realize.”
Like many of you, I see glimmers of the economy coming back — albeit more slowly than we may want. Will there be more waves of illness? How long will we fear and be told to fear more? So far, it is proving out that industry is being challenged like never before in procurement, inventory and logistics. Please know that our team here at R/B Sales will be in continuous communication with our manufacturing partners regarding service levels and effectively communicating any changes as needed.
I pray that you and your teams and families stay safe. R/B Sales team wants to help you in any way we can, you just need to ask.