Walking down the White House driveway, toward Pennsylvania Avenue's bustling midday traffic, I was lost in thought, writing in my mind a newspaper article about what I was sure would be a devastatingly important – even historic – development.
In my hand was a White House press statement that I'd soon describe in Newsday as "perhaps the most remarkable presidential paper in U.S. history." In that May 22, 1973, statement, President Richard Nixon had admitted, in effect, that his now infamous Watergate burglary scandal cover-up had indeed started at the top.
So, thinking about that, I didn't notice the voice behind me until the second or third time it shouted a name I should've recognized right away:
Finally I turned and saw George H.W. Bush speed-loping toward me, his long, lanky strides rapidly catching up with the ambling, lost-in-thought me.
"Marty! Wait up!"
I'd gotten to know Bush pretty well when he was a Texas congressman and then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Now as the new Republican National Committee chairman, his real job was to put the best possible face on Nixon's self-imploding presidency.
But I didn't have time for road-testing a new face-saving mask for the old Nixon. I needed to explain to Newsday's readers the real significance of Nixon's new but convoluted White House statement: Nixon was admitting he informed the FBI that an investigation of the Watergate burglary might reveal a CIA involvement. Nixon also said he now knows there was no CIA link. He said he merely repeated what someone told him – but Nixon aides told reporters Nixon can't recall who had misled him into misleading the FBI about a CIA connection.
Bush asked me to walk with him in the park across Pennsylvania Avenue. He said he was booked for tomorrow morning's NBC "Today Show" and wasn't sure what to say. I replied I don't give advice to politicians; I just give facts to readers. But I said I'd tell him the basic facts Newsday's readers will have already read before they see him on the "Today Show."
The next day, Nixon summoned Bush to an Oval Office meeting. I'll bet Bush figured some Nixon aide saw us talking and informed Nixon. Nixon had disliked me ever since Newsday did a 1971 investigation of Nixon's financial ties with his banker pal, Charles (Bebe) Rebozo. (When Nixon first told his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, about Newsday's investigation, according to the Oval Office tapes transcript, Haldeman asked who was doing the investigating. "Those Jews," Nixon replied. "Marty Schram?" Haldeman asked. Yes, Nixon said. Payback: Nixon ordered his staff not to talk to me and banned me from his historic 1972 China trip.)
No wonder Bush seemed determined to seize the initiative – and cover his aspirations – when he walked into the Oval Office on May 23, 1973. Bush immediately told Nixon he talked with "a couple of press guys" about Nixon's statement, but the response was just a "sour look." Bush then singled out just one name:
"Martin Schram – I walked out of here with him, a Newsday guy, and I said: 'Marty, tell me now, what was the view?' He said: 'It was unanimously hostile.' I said, 'Well, goddammit, that's simply not fair now. In terms of fairness, it's simply not fair. You're entitled to your damn opinion, but that's not the way the country's going to look at it.'"
Frankly, I thought that was hilarious when I read the transcript that was public years later. But I'm sure Bush was mortified. After all, Bush's version was nothing like what we had said. But my friend was in a jam with a vengeful president – and he did exactly what I would have advised him to do if I'd been in the pol-advising biz (instead of this less creative one).
In the subsequent decades, Bush and I remained personally close, yet always professionally proper. This week it became cliche to observe that Bush matured early and instantly when he was shot down over the Pacific as a 20-year-old World War II Navy pilot; but I think he actually was a late bloomer. As a president, Bush emerged as the iconic post-Cold War statesman. His quiet strength shaped a reluctant world's acceptance of Germany's reunification and smoothed the Soviet Union's relatively peaceful disintegration.
Much later, one day in 2005 brought us closer. At the funeral of our mutual friend, Time magazine's Hugh Sidey, Bush became emotional during his eulogy. Later, at the reception, Bush told me he was very embarrassed for becoming emotional. I replied that just made his message more compelling to us all.
"That means so much to me," he said. He hugged me and quietly started to say something more. ("Our friendship has always –") But he stopped talking – just hugged more tightly, silently. I tapped his left bicep twice with my right fist. We both smiled and went our separate ways.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.