Spokane rolled out the red carpet for the president of the United States on Thursday, and 85-year-old Margaret Connaway marched up it and gave George W. Bush the dickens.
“I told him he’s a bum,” Connaway said. “I gave him a hard time for not coming to Idaho.”
The president, no stranger to the tiny gray-haired lady from Coeur d’Alene, apologized, saying it was one of the few states he’s never visited.
Connaway was one of just three civilians to greet President Bush as he stepped from Air Force One at about 5:20 p.m. at Fairchild Air Force Base. The other two were Jack and Shirley Fischer, of Williams Lake, selected for Jack’s volunteer work with small businesses.
Connaway said that until Thursday morning she had no idea she’d be greeting the president, although they had met before.
Bush and Connaway have a mutual friend, Rob Beebe, of Boulder, Colo., a Yale classmate of Bush’s. Connaway and her son, Kelly, were visiting Washington, D.C., last fall, and Beebe called the president and arranged a visit for the Idahoans. The meeting lasted about 15 minutes, she said. Connaway and the president jawed about everything from their families to the weather.
Thursday’s meeting was just long enough for some good-natured ribbing. The encounter happened because Kelly Connaway acquired the phone number of a White House secretary during their meeting last fall. He used it Thursday to get his mom on the Air Force runway.
Jack Fischer said he was invited to welcome Bush to Spokane by USA Freedom Corps, a Bush-inspired initiative to encourage Americans to spend part of the summer performing community service.
A retired banker, Fischer is a volunteer consultant to small, startup businesses in the Spokane area. On the advice of his minister, Fischer took the rare opportunity to give the president a message of encouragement.
“I said, ‘I’m praying for you, sir,’ ” Jack Fischer said, choking up with emotion as he recounted the visit. “He said, ‘Thank you.’ “
After brief hellos, Bush was whisked away in a 19-car motorcade to a Spokane fund raiser for Republican Congressman and U.S. Senate candidate George Nethercutt.
The six-story-tall Air Force One idled on the Fairchild flight strip until the president’s return. Its whining engines never stopped running.
Security was tight, with sharp-shooters perched in the distance and Secret Service agents positioned around the president’s Boeing 747. Spectators were advised under threat of gunfire to make no sudden movements in the president’s presence.
During Bush’s two hours away from Air Force One, security agents took turns posing for photographs with select locals in front of the massive white and baby-blue plane, an imposing machine even while parked in front of three dozen KC-135 refueling tankers, the Air Force’s gas stations in the sky.
Before his departure about 7:55 p.m., Bush walked a security line greeting 400 armed forces members and military families invited for a session of handshakes and pats on the back.
“Definitely, I feel honored,” said Casey Killian, a boom operator on a KC-135 refueling tanker. “He just shook my hand and said, ‘Good job.’ He’s just very friendly, very open.”