Lunch With A President
One Monday morning in 1995, while going over my schedule for the week, I noticed a curious calendar item for the next day: “Lunch with the President.” I couldn’t remember making an appointment with any corporate presidents. Why hadn’t my assistant noted the name of the president’s company? “Can you please follow up?” I asked her. “I need to know who I’m meeting.”
Minutes later, looking flustered and embarrassed, our public relations officer rushed into my office. “I am so sorry,” she told me. “I really should have notified you about this meeting ahead of time. You are eating lunch with the president. President Gerald Ford.”
You could have knocked me over with a feather.
New York Life was the sole sponsor of the PBS television series The Presidents; as a result, I was going to have the honor of meeting not only President Ford, but several former presidents of the United States. I looked forward to this opportunity with great anticipation and wondered if I might even get the opportunity to speak with the president.
As vice-chairman, I was third in command at New York Life, but assumed there would be perhaps fifty or sixty top officers and guests at the lunch. With a group that size, I figured our chairman and our president would be seated with President Ford and that I would be entertaining other visitors in the president’s entourage at a separate table.
About an hour before the luncheon the next day, the public relations officer reappeared at my door. “Oh, Fred,” she said, “did I tell you that you will be hosting the luncheon today?” She reminded me that both the chairman and the president of New York Life were out of the office.
“Boy you’re full of surprises, aren’t you? I’m glad you didn’t make me nervous by giving me any time to think about this! By the way, how many New York Life executives will attend?”
“Only five,” she told me. Only five of us would attend the luncheon: President Ford, presidential historian Hugh Sidey, and three of us from New York Life—the human resources officer, the public relations officer, and me.
Needless to say, I panicked. I’d be expected to make opening remarks! And then carry the conversation! As I’d done daily throughout my business career, I paused to ask God to help me prepare for the meeting and to guide my thoughts, words, and actions.
I tried to think of some questions for President Ford. Realizing my knowledge of his term was limited, I quickly asked for help from two of my direct reports at New York Life who were not only great conversationalists but were also well-versed on recent history.
Nervously I scribbled some opening remarks welcoming the president, providing some background on New York Life and its involvement in the PBS production, and expressing our gratitude for the honor of his visit. I constructed a few questions that were suggested by my two employees, and then I pondered what I wanted to ask.
I’d always had a burning interest in President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Over the years I had read everything I could get my hands on relating to it, including much of the encyclopedic twenty-six–volume report of the Warren Commission. Volume Five of that report contained the transcript of a meeting that took place with Jack Ruby (who assassinated Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy’s killer) in his Dallas prison cell; the meeting was attended by President Ford, who was then a U.S. congressman and a member of the Warren Commission, and Lee Rankin, the commission’s general counsel.
In the transcript, Ruby indicated he knew much more than he was revealing about the assassination but insisted he didn’t feel safe in Dallas; he asked to be taken to Washington, where he promised to reveal what he knew. Inexplicably, the federal government—even with its vast resources—did not take Ruby to Washington. Instead, they left him in the Dallas prison, where he died of cancer a few months later. I was eager to ask President Ford why he didn’t have Ruby transferred to Washington.
I had always been fascinated with Ruby and his potential role in the assassination. There was much conjecture about Ruby’s association with the Mafia and his possible prior relationship with Lee Harvey Oswald. Many thought the killing of Oswald was far more than the crazed act of a bereaved citizen seeking revenge for the president’s assassination. And some journalists and authors felt the Warren Commission wanted to rush to judgment against Oswald as the sole assassin, preferring not to hear any evidence to the contrary. To be able to ask this question of a key governmental player who had actually interviewed Ruby face-to-face was a Kennedy assassination buff’s dream—and I was ready and eager to pose the question at the first opportune moment.
The initial luncheon conversation went well. I made my planned opening remarks relatively smoothly without the use of notes. And throughout the next two hours, President Ford was extremely gracious and congenial. He spoke freely about his years in the White House, about his family, and about Betty Ford’s formation of an alcohol treatment center. The time passed quickly for all five of us in the room as we listened to “the inside story” from a man who once held the most powerful office in the world. And throughout it all, I watched for my opportunity to jump in with my burning question.
But just when I thought the perfect time had come, historian Hugh Sidey preempted me. “Mr. President,” he said, “as the only surviving member of the Warren Commission, what are your thoughts now about the single-bullet theory?” Knowing that many of those familiar with the assassination believed there was more than one assassin, I almost breathlessly awaited President Ford’s response.
Before Mr. Sidey asked the question, the president had been quite relaxed, leaning back in his chair and talking as if he were among close friends at a country club. But as soon as he heard that question, all that changed. Leaning forward, he glared at Mr. Sidey and, pounding his fist on the table three times, declared, “That Oswald was a lunatic! He did it alone, and I never saw any evidence to the contrary!”
After observing his reaction and out of respect for one of the most honored guests ever to visit New York Life, I immediately realized that it would be extremely unwise to pose my probing question. I had missed my opportunity—but I don’t regret my decision to move on to less controversial matters. It seemed to me that—just as I had asked—God was indeed guiding my thoughts and my words through the Holy Spirit.
The discussion returned easily to a more congenial tone for next half-hour. During the final minutes of the luncheon, I never once reconsidered raising the question about Ruby. It seemed obvious that President Ford’s term on the Warren Commission was a source of some stress for him, and I surmised that he had often been asked questions about his role and his opinion about its published conclusions. Perhaps even then, more than thirty years after the assassination, he felt obligated to fully support the Warren Commission conclusions irrespective of his possible personal doubts.
None of us wanted this delightful experience to end, and we were astonished when the president looked at his watch and apologized for keeping us so long. “Thank you,” he said, “for the delicious meal and your hospitality.”
I made some brief closing remarks, thanking the president for joining us and for providing us with some fascinating insights into the life and challenges of the presidency. It was my first encounter with a United States president, and I was surprised by how comfortable I felt in his presence. I thanked God that this meeting had gone so well, that I had presided so comfortably, and that I had not embarrassed myself or New York Life.
When President Ford died some years later, it occurred to me that he went to his grave with very few people being aware of his jailhouse interview with Jack Ruby. Fewer still ever would have had the opportunity to ask him about it. While I would love to know his answer to my million-dollar question, I am grateful that God was with me that afternoon and had spared me the embarrassment of antagonizing an honored guest and potentially ruining an incredible experience.
Few people ever get the opportunity to spend time with a current or former President of the United States. Given that opportunity, one would want to thoroughly prepare for the experience. I had little time for preparation, but it seems that God was faithful in answering my brief prayers for assistance. God must have been watching over me with particular energy and interest, because His intervention was the only thing that saved me from making a very foolish mistake. Hugh Sidey, as a presidential historian who had interviewed every living president during his career, often posed challenging questions that provoked negative responses. For Sidey, the risks were low and the president’s reactions almost uneventful, being a part of the work of professional research; but for me, a representative of the company who had been charged with overseeing a pleasant and hospitable discussion, the risks were great. As in Proverbs 19, my inquisitiveness and desire almost caused my hasty feet to miss the way.
I hadn’t thought through these considerations in advance of Sidey’s question to the president, and, in hindsight, the truth of Paul’s message in the first letter to the Corinthians has never been more meaningful to me. It was indeed the wisdom given through the Spirit that guided my actions.
That lunch with the president was not the only time I felt God’s nearness while working—during my business career, I prayed brief prayers many times daily and always felt God’s presence through the Holy Spirit, not just in the workplace, but in all aspects of my life.
Do you speak to God daily, or do you instead reserve such prayer time for Sunday worship or devotions? Are you uncomfortable asking for God’s help in the workplace? I would encourage you to recognize that in every minute and hour of every day of the week, God is with you.