Scratch a member of Congress and you will find a natural tourist — especially when it comes to their enthusiasm for personal encounters with the occupant of the Oval Office.
There is rarely a meeting that involves the president and members of Congress (with the exception of the leadership), where he is not handed something to sign. Usually it is a card for a constituent or a T-shirt for a school or just keepsakes such as inaugural tickets or White House invitations. Whatever it is, it becomes special if the president has signed it.
Some members, especially if they are flying with the president on Air Force One to an event in their home state, will bring a whole satchel of old campaign leaflets or bumper stickers and ask the president to start signing them almost before the plane takes off.
Presidents put up with this not because it gets them any debts or credit with the member of congress, but because they are president. There are certain things you have to do if you want the job at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
It falls in the same category as being pleasant to the press — something that, usually, is endured more than enjoyed.
President George W. Bush played rugby at Yale. Our son, Josh, played at Dartmouth College. Josh asked me once if I could get a rugby ball signed by Bush for a new display case they were putting in a new rugby field house that was about to open at Dartmouth. I said I would try.
On an occasion when I knew I would be traveling with the president in his limousine as he was driving to an event in New Hampshire from the airport, I took along a deflated rugby ball that Josh had sent me, hoping to have a chance to ask him to sign it.
I was riding in the car with a member of Congress who, shortly after we got under way, whipped out a group of old Red Sox tickets which he wanted signed. I figured the door was open.
“Could you sign a rugby ball for Josh’s Dartmouth team?” I said.
“You brought a rugby ball?” the president said, a bit incredulous.
“It’s flat,” I offered and pulled it out of my briefcase and handed it to him.
It was obviously a matter of first impression.
“What should I say?” he asked as he reached for his Sharpie.
“I do not know,” I said. “Why don’t you say ‘scrum on’ or something like that?”
A scrum is a rugby term for what amounts to a brawl.
He took the ball, signed it and handed it back to me with a look that had a touch of amusement to it. I stuck it back in my briefcase without looking at it and tried to move on to a discussion of current fiscal issues.
I sent the ball to Josh the next day, and he received it a few days after that.
He emailed me and said “What does ‘scum on’ mean?”
It appeared the president had dropped the “r.”
The ball is now displayed somewhere in the Dartmouth rugby field house, where on any given Saturday in the fall you will find the Dartmouth rugby team beating the brains out of the Yale rugby team.
Perhaps that is why spelling comes so hard to them.
Judd Gregg is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Foreign Operations. He also is an international adviser to Goldman Sachs.