Throughout my book “And the Good News Is…: Lessons and Advice From the Bright Side,” I shared behind-the-scenes moments with President George W. Bush to show what kind of a leader he was when the cameras weren’t there.
The policies and politics of any administration are fully documented and will be pored over for years to come. But these glimpses behind the scenes help give you the full measure of a leader.
It was a joy to connect with some of my former colleagues, and below is a sampling of their stories, as told to me, that will give readers even more awareness of the kind of leader and boss President Bush was, and the kind of man he continues to be today.
In 2005, President Bush was scheduled to throw out the first pitch to open the Washington Nationals’ new ballpark. The president grew up playing baseball, and he was a former owner of the Texas Rangers before running for office.
He takes great pride in his ability to pitch—not throw or toss, but to pitch—a real, hard strike, from the top of the pitcher’s mound.
He takes great pride in his ability to pitch—not throw or toss, but to pitch—a real, hard strike, from the top of the pitcher’s mound. He most famously threw a beautiful pitch at Yankee Stadium during the 2001 World Series following 9/11, so he had a very high standard to meet.
A couple of weeks before the game, Jared Weinstein, the president’s personal aide, came to Tony Fratto, the principal deputy press secretary, to ask if he’d like to practice with President Bush a couple of times during the week before the game. Tony said yes and brought his glove to the White House, knowing that this was probably going to be one of the coolest days of his life.
At the appointed hour, Tony went out to the South Lawn, feeling a little awkward wearing suit pants, a tie, and dress shoes to toss around a baseball. The president wasn’t so encumbered—he’d just finished his biking workout, so he was warmed up and wearing athletic gear. Tony tried to focus. No matter how much fun it was to play ball with the president, the outcome was important. We needed he president to throw a strike.
The first thing Tony discovered while tossing the ball with President Bush is that he does it like he does everything else physical—running, biking, golf, whatever: hard and fast, with no warm-up. So they started throwing and the president was throwing hard. Tony had to figure out what to do.
“I had the president throwing bee-bees at me like we were kids back home,” Tony said. “Now, I can throw hard, too, and it was like the president was challenging me to throw harder. So I threw it harder. And we’re going back and forth when all of a sudden I remembered I needed to keep my ego in check. I thought, ‘The only way I can screw this up is if I injure the president.’ So I focused—good catches, good throws, don’t injure President Bush.”
Out there on the South Lawn, the moment became extremely emotional and meaningful to him, Tony said. And he’s not talked about it until now.
“After the shock of President Bush’s hard throws, and the sheer coolness of catching ball with him on the South Lawn, I realized it was really the first time I’d ever played catch with someone like a father figure,” Tony said. “I love my dad, and he was an important role model for me growing up, but he was not a sports guy. I was a very good baseball player as a kid, but I never played catch with my dad. literally never caught baseballs with any adults—only other kids.
“I realized this after about twenty or thirty throws with President Bush, and at that point I wasn’t at the White House with the president—I was just in the backyard with dad. I don’t think of President Bush as a father figure, but as the president, and my friend. But that was a really special personal moment for me. And I have the pictures to prove it!”
On opening night, Tony was able to bring his eight-year-old son, Antonio, to Nats Park for the game. Antonio got to ride in the motorcade, and President Bush had him join him in visiting the teams in their dugouts before the game. Antonio even joined the president and his dad on the field for the pitch.
Everyone had their eyes on the president. Would he or wouldn’t he throw a strike?
Of course he did.
Even now, years later, President Bush and Antonio always have something to talk about. In 2013, Antonio visited the president with Tony in Dallas at the Bush Center, and they hadn’t seen each other in about six years. Antonio was sixteen by then. But they picked right up talking baseball. President Bush even remembered what position Antonio played.
“There are a lot of reasons I loved working with President Bush, and his love for baseball—and for making it such a special moment for me and my son—is one of them,” Tony said.
What’s the Worst That Could Happen?
Some of the best advice I ever got from the president was after he left office. When he saw me in April 2009, he asked all about how I was doing. He is a good career counselor. I tried to put a good spin on things, but he saw right through me.
I’d joined Burson-Marsteller, a global public relations company, and it wasn’t a good fit (mainly because I really didn’t want to do PR). The other problem was that I didn’t match the culture at Burson.
The top leadership of the company was from the Clinton administration, and they were smart and fun to talk to. We liked to trade political war stories and gossip about Washington. But our styles were so different—where the Bush White House was like a smooth ocean liner, the Clinton White House was more of a scrappy fishing boat. I got seasick.
The president didn’t let me off the hook when I tried to change the subject. “You worked way too hard to be unhappy after theWhite House. Why don’t you start your own company, a consulting business?” he asked.
I went through a list of why I thought I needed to be a part of an established global firm, but it felt pretty weak.
And then he asked, “What’s the worst that could happen? Your business doesn’t succeed and you have to go back to work for a PR firm? Is that the worst thing that could happen to an educated woman in the United States who served in the White House as the press secretary? Doesn’t seem like too big a risk to me.”
I knew he was right, but there were those butterflies again. I worried what people would think of me if I left so soon after just starting a job. I didn’t want to disappoint them. I went home and asked myself again, “What’s the worst that could happen?”
Once I thought that through, I realized he was right. I got up the courage to tell my new bosses I wasn’t going to stay. They were disappointed but they didn’t hold a grudge; in fact, Burson became my first client and I worked as a consultant instead of an employee. That certainly wasn’t the worst outcome.
Risk-taking isn’t supposed to feel comfortable, but trying to protect myself from that discomfort closed my mind to new opportunities. No risk, no reward. If the worst that can happen is that you have to try something else, then there’s really no excuse for not taking a chance.
Adapted from Dana Perino’s book, “And the Good News Is…: Lessons and Advice From the Bright Side.”