I went to the White House Tuesday for the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony honoring 15 people, from Warren Buffet to George Herbert Walker Bush; from Stan Musial to Bill Russell; from Maya Angelou to Yo-Yo Ma.
I was not the only person from San Diego present. Murray and Elaine Galinson were also invited. The "why" of their invitation was unknown to them, but I suspect their standing as two of our town's leading Democrats and major contributors to charitable and political causes, was a factor. In my case a 40-year friendship with one of the president's top advisers was the "why" of my being there; that, and his knowing I am a life-long fan of the greatest St. Louis Cardinal ever -- Stan Musial.
(Before flying to Washington Monday, Elaine Galinson had an interesting experience with TSA at the airport San Diego. She went through the screening machine but was asked nonetheless to step aside for a further search (what more could they have been looking for?). She asked why? She was told they needed to "pat down her hair." Elaine's a very attractive woman, but a big hair person she's not. It's a funny story and Elaine tells it with amusement, but the "hair pat down" was absurd.)
The Galinsons and I arrived at the "extended" East Gate of the White House on Tuesday at high noon. The invitation from President and Mrs. Obama read "twelve-thirty o'clock", but we had been advised arriving early was prudent. The Secret Service checked our ID's and we made our way past the first "check point." There was a second just before you enter the White House. Upon entering we checked our coats, made our way down the hallway and up the stairs to the reception room, where the U.S. Marine Band was playing, and sparkling water, white wine and champagne was being served (I went with the sparkling water).
While I was not among them, there were a lot of important people at the reception. Murray kept saying to me, "That person looks like someone." Which caused me to wonder, "Does anyone think we look like 'someone?'" In Murray's behalf I would ask, "Are you someone?" And indeed, those someones confirmed they were someone. Very Reassuring.
Among the someones I spoke to were Joe Morgan, who, like Musial, is in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the Cleveland Brown's Jim Brown, who some deem the greatest running back in the history of the National Football League. Both Morgan and Brown were guests of Bill Russell, one of the Medal of Freedom honorees, and one of the most dominant players ever in the National Basketball Association (NBA), as 10 titles in 12 years with the Boston Celtics would suggest.
And why had Russell requested Morgan and Brown be invited? Because he knew that they, like him, had suffered the indignities of racial discrimination; and, like him, had survived without ever losing either their dignity or their identities. No small thing, since no white person can ever know what it's like to be a person of color in the USA.
I also spoke to a gentleman in a wheel chair. His name is Guy Johnson, Maya Angelou's son, he said. I knew from reading his mother's autobiography that when she was a young woman struggling to survive in San Diego she gave birth to a boy; Guy Johnson is that boy. I asked he and his wife, Stefanie, where do you live? "Oakland," he said. "Ah, Oakland," I said, "the place made famous by Gertrude Stein's remark, 'There is no there.'"
But he disagreed with the celebrated women of letters, saying there is a "there" in Oakland, and he pointedly said, Gertrude Stein misused the preposition "there.'" That was wonderfully amusing to me. I told him I often use the quote, but no one before had suggested Ms. Stein misused "there" as a preposition." He said, "But I'm a writer and poet and I pay attention to such things."
I shared this little exchange with David Stern, the NBA commissioner, who seemed slightly perplexed. Later, in the East Room, while waiting for the ceremony to start, Stern, sitting behind me, tapped me on the shoulder and asked, "How did Stein misuse the preposition?" I promised Stern I would check with Johnson to see how Stein had erred in a fundamental rule of grammar. I would do that, of course, because I had no clue, but then neither did Stern about Stein.
When the ceremony was over I told Johnson the commissioner of the NBA wanted to know how "there" was misused? He said, "Because you cannot define a preposition with a preposition." By then Stern had left but I called the NBA office in New York the next day and left Guy Johnson's answer with the commissioner's secretary.
I had a chance to say hello to George Herbert Walker Bush, our 41st president. During the Gulf War my brother Dan and I, along with the founder of the New York City Marathon, Fred Lebow, had been to the White House with Senator Alan Simpson, a close friend of the president's. We spent about 15 minutes in the Oval office and I thought then, and now, President Bush 41 is an extraordinarily decent man (a view held by almost everyone, except the haters among us, not all of whom are on the right). It was shocking and upsetting to see him in a wheel chair. To witness this vital human being, who jumped out of an airplane on his 85th birthday, so confined, was a sad reminder it can come to anyone - I just hate that it has happened to him.
Yo-Yo Ma, the brilliant cellist, was also honored Tuesday by the President Obama, who spoke not alone of Ma's great artistry but also of his wholly engaging persona. We saw that after the ceremony when Ma borrowed a cello from a Marine band member and played a lovely song with other Marines. The president, who was about to depart the reception, took note of Ma's playing and walked over to listen.
When Ma finished everyone applauded and the president turned to leave. Since Murray, Elaine, and I were standing behind the president we greeted him. "Mr. President, I'm George Mitrovich, from San Diego, and it's an honor to meet you." He said, "George, I am pleased to meet you." He then greeted the Galinsons, who had met him before. I then said, "Mr. President, I have one question. When Vice President Biden was in San Diego two-years ago I gave him an authentic 1959 Chicago White Sox replica jacket and asked if he would hand delivered it to you." The president, a huge White Sox fan, confirmed the delivery of the jacket.
Oh, I began by affirming Stan Musial as my baseball hero; so let me end with this:
Because Ted Williams was born in San Diego, played ball at Hoover High and with the Pacific Coast League Padres before joining the Red Sox in '39, it is often assumed Teddy Ballgame is every young San Diego boy's baseball idol. Maybe, but in personal esteem Musial has always been my favorite player. And at the White House Tuesday, I had the chance to tell him the first time I saw him play in person was Friday, April 25, 1958, when the Cardinals came to Los Angeles to play the Dodgers. The Cardinals won 5-3 and Musial was 4-4, with a double and three singles. What more could you want from your baseball hero?
I then told Musial I found the box score of the game on the Web and printed it up on high quality photographic paper, which I carry with me everywhere I go. I'm not sure it resonated with Stan the Man, as he is famously known, but his daughters standing nearby, loved the story.
A magnificent day at the White House was drawing to a close; it was time to leave. But before leaving I asked the Marine band if they knew the Notre Dame fight song? They looked at one another in puzzlement, but then the cellist began playing, "Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame..."
I may never get back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for such an occasion, but if this was the one and only time for such a grand ceremony, the memories of Tuesday, February 15, 2011, will be treasured until the moment I draw my last breath.
George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader.