COLUMBIA — Visiting scholars who were close to former presidents spoke at Columbia College’s Launer Auditorium on Tuesday evening, offering a glimpse into what it feels like to be part of a president’s inner circle.
The Missouri Bar Association sponsored the event, which was billed as “An Insider’s View of the American Presidency.” Millie Aulbur, the association's director of citizenship education, started by thanking Columbia College for hosting them and offering a warning for those who would quote the panelists:
"They don't want to see their comments out of context on Twitter and Facebook," Aulbur said.
David Lile, host of the Columbia Morning talk show on KFRU, served as moderator. Lile alluded to a dinner with the panelists before the event where they shared their juiciest stories.
"I wish we could have broken the rules and had a secret microphone there," Lile said, jokingly.
The panel consisted of:
- Jean Becker, an Audrain County native who graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism in 1978 and went from a career newspaper reporter to chief of staff for George H.W. Bush.
- Mark Updegrove, director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library. Updegrove has interviewed five presidents and written three books on presidential history.
- Greg Willard, a former staff assistant and personal aide to Gerald Ford who is now a partner in the Carmody MacDonald law firm in St. Louis.
- Fred Spiegel, MU professor emeritus of political science.
Laughter frequently burst out in the auditorium when the panelists told stories about the presidents they knew. They mixed the mundane and the absurd because they involved a powerful world leader who was, at his core, human.
Becker told the crowd about former President Bush visiting her in the hospital while she was recovering from surgery and asking her blunt questions about her body. She also talked about Bush’s love for bright, garish socks.
Willard told a story about golfing with former President Ford in Vail, Colo., and realizing that Secret Service agents were throwing the president’s golf balls closer to the green.
Updegrove shared a story about Lyndon Johnson that made an impression on him when he listened to a recording of it.
In 1964, Johnson called tailor Joe Haggar to order several pairs of slacks, providing detailed anatomical instructions on how they should be customized for him. The recording is available at Whitehousetapes.net.
“You listen to this, and it sounds like a 'Saturday Night Live' sketch,” Updegrove said.
Spiegel commented that he was the only member of the panel who didn’t spend time with a president. Still, he made the crowd laugh with a raunchy joke involving a rooster and his favorite president, Calvin Coolidge.
There were some somber moments, as well. Willard and Becker both discussed the heaviness of knowing deep personal information about presidents, enough detail to plan a presidential funeral. Becker and Willard also mentioned the rapport among former presidents when they meet each other at such events.
“There is a bond among these men like no other,” Willard said. That bond transcends the worlds of policy and politics, he said.
Supervising editor is Zachary Matson