Eureka journalist Dave Silverbrand once went fishing with George H.W. Bush.
What began as a chance encounter during a trip to China turned into a friendship that unfortunately fell to the fringes after the former president’s failure to win a second term. But during the years that Bush was in the White House, he and Silverbrand shared moments Silverbrand reflects fondly on.
Silverbrand’s connection to Bush begins in the 1980s with a barber by the name of Emile Roy. Roy called Silverbrand and told him that he would occasionally cut the hair of then-Vice President Bush. One day, while on a trip in China, Silverbrand had a tour driver tell him traffic was congested because of the vice president’s visit. Bush was staying at a hotel called the White Swan, the same hotel as Silverbrand.
“So I wrote this note on a hotel stationary saying ‘I’m a friend of your barber, Emile Roy in Maine and just thought I would say hello,” Silverbrand said. “I gave it to a guy in a pinstripe suit with an earpiece.”
About 15 minutes later, Silverbrand’s hotel phone rang. He picked up and was greeted by Bush.
“What a weird feeling that was to drop the name of a Sanford barber on a hotel stationery in China and have the vice president (call),” he said. “I didn’t know what to say, I couldn’t believe the VP of the United States would be calling me for any reason.”
Silverbrand said Bush asked what he thought about his time in China, and wished Silverbrand and his wife at the time a safe trip.
“That was what was really disarming about him,” Silverbrand said. “It’s as if you were talking to somebody in a rice field somewhere.”
The call lasted for about 10 minutes, Silverbrand said. Afterward, he and his wife sat there in “stunned silence,” wondering what just happened. When he got back to Maine, he called Emile Roy, the barber, and told him in disbelief about his call with Bush.
“Well, that’s the way he is,” Roy said to Silverbrand. “He just calls you up, that’s the kinda guy he is.”
Shortly after, Roy helped Silverbrand arrange a shoot of Roy cutting Bush’s hair. Silverbrand said Bush was full of jokes during the shoot, which marked the first of the many moments Silverbrand was given to get to know Bush as a person.
“You could see the levity that he had, what a sense of humor that he had,” Silverbrand said.
He recalls Bush joking that in his line of work, “If the barber gives you a bad ‘do, you’re in trouble.”
Silverbrand said that he focused on the person, not the politician when he covered Bush.
“My function was just to describe him as a human being with flaws, but with humor and personality and that was my job,” Silverbrand said. “I never talked politics directly with him because I didn’t feel qualified to do it and honestly I didn’t really like interviewing politicians.”
Silverbrand acknowledges the press has done a good job exposing the decisions presidents have made.
Bush, he said, made a few that he didn’t agree with.
“It’s really an awkward position … I just kind of compartmentalized it,” he said. “I looked at him as a person and these other things I’d say, ‘Man, I wish he’d done things a little differently that way.’ ”
Silverbrand was later invited to go fishing with Bush, who piloted his speedboat ‘like a fighter plane,” according to Silverbrand.
Bush cut the craft so hard Silverbrand’s cameraman fell, causing an injury to Silverbrand’s arm that he wore with pride as a keepsake of the trip. While they didn’t catch anything, Bush did give Silverbrand some fishing advice.
“Keep your line in the water, just have patience, and wait it out,” Bush said.
Silverbrand’s family was eventually invited to the White House to meet Bush when he was president. Silverbrand’s daughter was working as a Senate page when Bush recognized her last name. After learning her father was Silverbrand, he arranged for the Silverbrand family to visit the White House. As a gift, the Silverbrands brought a stuffed moose, a symbol of Maine, Silverbrand said.
“The Secret Service guys were squeezing it to see if it had any explosives in it or something,” he said, chuckling. “It was just us as a family.”
The last moment Silverbrand shared with Bush marked the holy grail of many reporters: a one-on-one interview with the sitting president. The interview was something Silverbrand had been trying to land for years and the timing of when his request was finally accepted was “the most ironic experience,” Silverbrand said.
In 1992, a month before the election that would end Bush’s presidential run, Silverbrand’s life was unraveling. Bush on the other hand, was heading into an election that many predicted he would lose, Silverbrand said.
“I was essentially losing my family, moving out of my house … . I had taken a TV job that was not working out,” he said. “His political life would be over in a month, and the life that as I knew, it was gonna be over in a month.”
Silverbrand only got about five minutes with the president, and used it to ask “innocuous questions.” Ironically, when answering a question about the economy, Bush spoke about the need to increase job transition programs. But the content of the interview wasn’t as important as the fact that it occurred, Silverbrand said.
On his return home, Silverbrand saw O.J. Simpson, and passed up the thought of saying hello because he had “already been to the mountaintop.”
“It was kind of like a message to me as a person … . You may not meet the expectations of other people, but in the end what does it matter,” he said. “If you’re honest and true to yourself and don’t try to be somebody that you’re not, there’s gonna be an affirmation of some kind.”
Philip Santos can be reached at 707-441-0506.