If ever there was a metaphor for bipartisanship in national politics over the past quarter century, it would be the American elm tree planted 25 years ago today in Riverfront Park.
The elm from the White House was planted by a Republican president and a Democratic speaker of the House. They didn’t just smile and shake hands stiffly for the cameras but went out to dinner, shared a couple of bottles of wine, got up the next morning and planted a tree in a show of bipartisanship.
The concept may seem as quaint today as eight-track tape players and phone booths, but there was a sunny day in 1989 when Spokane was a kind of Ground Zero for national bipartisanship. President George H.W. Bush visited House Speaker Tom Foley’s hometown while both were fairly new in their terms, Bush taking office that January and Foley elected to the speakership in June.
They weren’t exactly BFFs, but they knew and respected each other and both talked about a more bipartisan approach to government. Cynics would say that was enlightened self-interest: Bush needed bipartisanship to get anything through a Democratic Congress and Foley evoked bipartisanship to quiet the GOP attack dogs that had brought down his predecessor, Jim Wright.
As far as anyone knew at the time, a president of one party had never visited a speaker of another party in his hometown. The history was a little shaky on that point, but it hasn’t happened again since. Not likely Bill Clinton would get within swinging distance of Newt Gingrich with a shovel. Same for George W. Bush and Nancy Pelosi or Barack Obama and John Boehner.
Officially, the visit helped mark Washington’s Centennial, which was being celebrated that year. The Centennial Trail went through Riverfront Park; Foley had been instrumental in coming up with some federal money for the trail; Bush had been in the park during a campaign visit the previous summer and had a good time. Someone came up with the idea of planting an elm sapling descended from a tree President John Quincy Adams planted on the White House lawn, and the staffs began working.
Bush arrived on Air Force One on Sept. 18; the sapling had been sent ahead with the presidential limousine. After the motorcade arrived at the Sheraton, Foley’s staff spread the word to local reporters that the president was having dinner at a restaurant with the speaker, his wife Heather and EPA Administrator William Reilly. They couldn’t say which restaurant, but by following their car it became clear they were headed to Browne’s Addition, which in 1989 meant Patsy Clark’s, the turn-of-the century mining baron’s mansion that had been turned into one of the city’s posher eateries.
Word spread throughout Browne’s Addition, and a crowd gathered in Coeur d’Alene Park to watch the arrival. The Secret Service got a little nervous about the crowd, but Police Chief Terry Mangan said he’d take care of it.
The chief later related how he walked across the street, talked to the crowd, and they moved back. “What’d you say?” an agent asked when Mangan returned. The police chief said he told the crowd that the Secret Service would like them to move back. The incredulous agent told Mangan that would never work in D.C.
Bush, Foley and company dined in a small room down a few stairs from the front entrance known as the Chinese Game Room. They ordered the special of the night, Jack Daniel’s Whiskey steak, and a couple of bottles of Arbor Crest wine (a chardonnay and a sauvignon blanc; the sommelier may have gasped). Waitress Rose Betzer, who found out she was serving the president a few minutes before he arrived, was wanded by the Secret Service every time she came and went from the room. Someone watched the chef prepare the meals, she recalled recently, and agents poured the president’s water from bottles they brought.
“It was a crazy, crazy night,” the former waitress, now Rose Rhoades, said recently. She was nervous at first, but the agents told her not to worry. “They said, ‘Just relax. He’s a regular guy. He loves pork rinds. He’s not a gourmet.’ ”
Bush put her at ease, and the four diners didn’t talk business or politics, just casual conversation. When she mentioned to Foley that co-owner Tony Anderson and his wife, Kay, were in the bar and said to say hello – Anderson was a staunch Democrat who’d run for the Legislature a few years earlier and knew the Foleys well – Bush had an agent bring them in and they spent about an hour with the group, Kay Anderson said.
“He was just the nicest man,” Kay Anderson, herself a good Democrat, said of the Republican president.
When it came time to pay the bill, Bush engaged in a bit of banter with Rose, asking if the restaurant could hold his check for a few days to make sure it wouldn’t bounce, and she asked him for two pieces of ID. He wrote a $140 check for the tab and the tip. Out in the bar, someone offered her $1,000 for the check; she thought briefly about putting the bill on her VISA card to keep the check as a keepsake, but the manager told her no. After the foursome left the restaurant, Anderson said he was going to frame the check and hang it on the wall rather than cash it.
When Bush read that in the paper the next morning, he sent over an envelope with cash so no one could say he was getting a sweet deal, and a handwritten note thanking the Andersons and Rose for the evening. Foley said later he was sure the note was heartfelt, that presidents rarely get out to a restaurant in D.C. Even in Spokane, it turned out, the prep work started weeks before he arrived with the Secret Service scoping out Patsy’s.
In the park, members of the audience got buttons with the two politicians’ faces and the message “Together saluting Washington’s Centennial.”
An estimated 20,000 gathered to listen to school kids sing and the president talk about the importance of a clean environment before Bush and Foley tossed ceremonial shovels of dirt on the sapling already ensconced in the ground. The two politicians flew back to the other Washington on Air Force One later that morning.
Less than a week later, vandals had ripped some of the lower limbs off the elm sapling. City Parks’ arborists splinted what was left of the tree and moved it to an unmarked spot in the dogwood section of the Finch Arboretum.
Bush lost his re-election bid in 1992 and Foley in 1994. A replica of the check Bush wrote hung on the wall of the Chinese Game Room for years, but the real one went to the restaurant’s co-owner, Chuck Quinn, a huge fan of Bush who was in Seattle that night and couldn’t get a flight back to see the president in his restaurant. Jack Daniel’s Whiskey steak became a staple of Patsy’s until it closed in 2002. It’s now on the menu at Rock City in River Park Square, which is owned by the Jim Rhoades, the former manager of Patsy’s who developed the sauce. He’s married to Rose, whose only regret from that night was she never got a photo with the president. The traveling White House press corps was upstairs, but no one had a camera in the Chinese Game Room in that time before smartphones and selfies.
The elm remained unmarked among the Arboretum dogwoods for nearly 18 years, where competition for sunlight gave it an odd shape. In the spring of 2007, the park staff decided to move it to the elm section. But it was planted too shallow and its roots couldn’t compete with the root systems of the nearby pines and maples. By that September, it was dead and unceremoniously disposed of.
Dead as a doornail. Or bipartisanship.
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