Monday, March 5, 2012

The George Bush Bet - Part Two

The story of the George Bush bet continues.  While in London in 2004, I met Sandy, an Australian antique dealer.  He struck up an apparently innocent conversation with me about the Cenotaph, a British monument in the heart of the city, and then informed me that he had just won a bunch of money at a casino somewhere.  The conversation now turns, naturally, to the topic of the George Bushes, the current (in 2004) and former American presidents...  

“I can tell you’re a man who knows a great deal.  I have a question for you,” Sandy said as we resumed walking, “Tell me about this president of yours.  How did this George Bush get to be President of your country?  What did he do before he was President?  His father was President too, wasn’t he?” 

Although I was taken aback by the abrupt shift in topics, I have to admit it generated an immediate warm spark of kinship.  After all, I had been going around London asking cab drivers, subway passengers, ticket-takers and anyone else I thought might sit still for the question how they felt about Tony Blair and whether they thought he would survive the current surge of discontent over his commitment to the war in Iraq.  I was also soliciting opinions regarding a smaller tempest occurring simultaneously over Blair’s proposal to charge tuition to the state universities.  I did this because I am naturally curious about the opinions and attitudes of other people, but also because I felt a certain obligation to play against the stereotype of Americans as being comatose when it comes to the political affairs of other countries.    

In response to Sandy’s question, I explained that George Bush was the governor of Texas prior to being elected President, and mentioned that governors had a record of doing pretty well in presidential elections over the recent past.  For some reason, Sandy found this hard to believe.  “But what about your Senate and your . . . your . . . oh, what do you call them?”  He abruptly stopped short, his face suddenly scrunching into a painful grimace, and for a moment I thought he might be having a kidney stone attack.  I fleetingly wondered whether there was a British equivalent for ‘911.’  That led to a follow up thought, almost as fleeting, in which I had a mental image of the TV show Cops, except it was a British version called Bobbies, where round-hatted officers pursued their suspects by walking swiftly, Charlie Chaplin-style, swinging their nightsticks and calling out after their targets, “Pardon me, sir?  I don’t want to trouble you, but we’ve had this report of a triple homicide, you see, and the combination of blood and human remains on your clothes there is rather suspicious.  It wouldn’t be too much trouble to slow down for a moment, and let us have a look, would it?”  This thought so amused me that I almost forgot that my new friend was still in a state of mental anguish.

“House of Representatives,” I finally and magnanimously interjected.

“Right, right, representatives,” he said, relieved.  “Don’t your Presidents usually come from the Senate or Representatives?”

I smiled.  This was something I myself had thought about, and I was proud to have a chance to offer my opinion, and even better, to pass it off as fact.  “Well, you see, the job of President is an executive one.” I knew even as I spoke that I sounded like Barney Fife, but I couldn’t help myself.  Besides, the guy’s a foreigner.  He’s probably never seen The Andy Griffith Show.  “Governors are like Presidents, just on a smaller scale.  In many ways, each state is run like a small country, and people like to see that the person they’re electing has executive experience.  Many Americans feel that electing someone without executive experience would be like putting someone in charge of the biggest company in the world who has never run another company before.  They don’t like that idea.”  Sandy looked like he wanted to ask something, but I wasn’t done pontificating.  I raised a “hold all questions” finger without pausing to take a breath.  “Now, Congress is different.  In many people’s minds, it’s the opposite of an executive position.  In Congress, the primary requirement of the job is compromise.  In order to get anything done, you have to be willing to give up something to get something.  It gives the appearance of a lack of conviction.  Candidates who come from the Senate or the House seem to have a hard time convincing the voters that they are capable leaders.”

“I see,” he said thoughtfully.  “You know, I like you.  You’re very smart.  You must teach.  At a university or college?”

“No, not really,” I said.  “I’m a mailman.” 

“A what?” he asked.  Again with the confused face.

“A mail carrier.  A postman.  I deliver the mail.”

“Oh, sure,” he said, falling silent.  The expression on his face, which was indecipherable, but which I feared might be headed towards either embarrassment or contempt, caused me to offer my standard, automatic and admittedly pathetic defense, “I like working outside.”  He nodded, as if in understanding, quickly returning to his natural, ebullient state. 

“So, I’m confused.  If George Bush was governor, was his father a governor too?  Isn’t it unusual to elect a father and a son?  You Americans don’t typically go for that sort of thing, do you?”

“Yes, it’s pretty rare.  That’s happened only one other time, a father and son like that.  But we do have certain families who tend to be politically dominant.  The Kennedys, of course, is a good example, or before them the Roosevelts.”  We had reached the corner, and I could see the London Eye rising beyond Big Ben.  “I’ve got to cross here,” I said, and we waited together for the light to change.  “As for the Bush family, George W., the current President, was governor of Texas.  For four years, I think.  It doesn’t seem like it can be much longer than that; maybe it was six.  Ann Richards was governor before him, and that wasn’t that long ago.  As far as I know, that’s the only elected office he’s ever had.  And I’m pretty sure his father was never a governor.”

“Well, how did the older Bush get elected, then?” Sandy asked, perplexed.

“Well, let’s see,” I said as I tried to pull up the older Bush’s resume in my mind.  “The older George Bush was Vice-President under Reagan for eight years.  I think he was elected primarily because of that.  Reagan was popular, and people considered Bush his political successor.”  The light changed and we started across the street.

“So George Bush the older was Vice-President.  What does a Vice-President do?”

“Not much,” I said with a smile.  “Daniel Webster, who was a famous American politician, supposedly said of being Vice-President:   ‘I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead.’  That seems to sum it up.”  I had been listening to a Great Lectures series on American History on my MP3 player while I worked delivering the mail; I was full of quotable material for very specific situations just like this.

“So he was Vice-President and nothing else?  Did he do anything before that?”  I had to think about that one, because I couldn’t remember what he had done before.  I was twelve in 1980, a political fetus the year Reagan was elected the first time. 

“Well, I think he was head of the CIA for awhile before that.  Maybe an ambassador or something like that; I’m not sure.”
“Are those elected positions?”  Sandy asked. “He wasn’t a Senator or Representative, then?”        
“No, they’re not elected positions,” I conceded.  “Let me think.  I don’t remember him . . .” I fell into contemplation as we walked towards the bridge.

“Hey,” he said, stopping short and touching me on the shoulder to make sure I stopped with him.  “You know, it just occurred to me who you look like.  That actor in those movies, those ones where he has that car, you know?  Oh, what kind of car was it…”  I had a pretty good idea who he was thinking of, but since I was engaged in my own memory test, I let him flounder with it for a minute while I wracked by brain regarding the Bush question.  Neither of us made any progress.  I gave up on mine, and he was still struggling with the car “. . . it was that silvery one, with those doors that opened up instead of out . . . what was it called?”

“You mean a DeLorean.  Michael J. Fox?” I offered.  It wasn’t the first time I had heard the comparison, although aside from being short and having brown hair, I didn’t see much of a resemblance.  My wife likened me more to Nicolas Cage, a short Nicolas Cage.  That, at least, I could somewhat see.  I have a narrow face, with a long nose, and big, droopy eyes.    

“Yes!  That’s him.  What was the name of those movies he was in?”

Back to the Future.”

“Right, right, right!  Oh, I like him; he’s a good actor.”  When I didn’t respond, he added, “It’s a compliment.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “I like him, too.  You know, he’s actually Canadian.”  The significance seemed to glance right off him, but I couldn’t help savoring the delicious irony of a moment where two strangers, an American and an Australian, were walking the streets of London talking about a Canadian. 

Instead, he returned to the issue which seemed to have worked itself into a death grip on his mind.  “So George Bush the older was never a Senator or a Representative then?”  It seemed somehow important to him to answer this question, almost as if he had developed an attachment to some personal theory on American presidential politics which I had unwittingly contradicted.  At the time, I simply attributed his tenacity to an innate curiosity combined with the energetic earnestness of a personality type that was both charmingly exuberant and perhaps just a little obsessive-compulsive. 
“You know, I don’t think the older Bush ever served in Congress as a Senator or Representative.  At least, I can’t remember him doing that.  If he was, I can’t remember it ever being talked about in his campaigns.  I suppose if he was anywhere, it would have been the House of Representatives.  But I really think he was elected because he was Reagan’s Vice-President.”  I paused for a moment because the words I was about to say sounded odd to me as I thinking them.  “I think President was the only elected position he ever held.” 

“Really?”  His expression and his tone conveyed equal incredulity.  “How sure are you?” he asked.  At that moment, a large group of students came pouring towards us like a flash flood from the other side of the intersection.  The torrent streamed through what was already a crowded street, teenagers shouting back and forth to each other and laughing loudly as they passed.  I felt an impulse to step off the sidewalk and into the street to avoid being swept away, but I held fast to my position between Sandy and a light post, and within a few seconds the surge had passed.   

“What we need is a bookstore,” Sandy said with a definitive tone.  He craned his head above the crowd to look up and down the street.  “I wonder if there’s one close by.  I’ll be right back,” he said, leaping directly out into the street.  He somehow avoided the oncoming traffic and crossed into a thick clot of cars stopped at the light before the bridge.  He rapped on the window of a taxi cab until it opened, and began speaking with the driver. 

I thought about just turning around and walking away.  It would have been the perfect opportunity.  The London Eye was tantalizingly close, and I easily could have slipped into the crowd and disappeared while Sandy continued to accost the cab driver for information.  I wasn’t sure what he was up to, and I was beginning to wonder about his motivation.  No one could be that interested in the first George Bush; no one I knew in America was.  But I didn’t go.  I had learned over my recent years of travel that the side detours often led to the most interesting parts of a trip, the parts you remember best and enjoy the most.  Our best vacations seemed to be the ones that somehow mixed the planned with a healthy amount of the unplanned.  The key is in keeping an open mind, not being too rigid, and enjoying the journey as much as possible.  This unforeseen departure from the script felt like it might be worth following to its natural conclusion, even if it meant I might have to sacrifice my chance to ride the London Eye.    

The lights changed, and the cars all around Sandy and Sandy’s cab began to move, maneuvering their way around them silently and efficiently.  No one honked their horn or shook their fist or pelted them with angry invectives as they passed.  I watched in complete amazement.  I was never more aware of being in a different country. 

They finally concluded their conversation, and Sandy turned back towards me, vehicles now zooming by chaotically on both sides.  Spontaneously, I began to eulogize him in my mind.  I never knew Sandy well, I could imagine myself saying at his funeral, but we spent the last ten minutes of his life together, and I feel I can say without any fear of contradiction that I’ve never met an Australian more interested in the subtle workings of the American political system than he, God rest his soul.  It was amazing to me, I continued, that a man who lived so boldly, so courageously, and with such little regard for his own life, ever managed to live as long as he did.  But even as I was planning my words of condolence to his friends and family, and simultaneously watching lest I miss the moment that would make them necessary, he simply and directly waded through five or six lanes and two directions of traffic.  Then he was right back on the sidewalk, walking towards me, smiling and waving his hand excitedly.

“The driver says there are plenty of bookstores within a fairly short distance,” Sandy said.  “He said we should try going up that street,” he said, pointing behind us, “and we should find one within a few minutes’ walk.”  The near-perfect circle of the London Eye framed Sandy’s head like a halo.      

“Why exactly do we want to find a bookstore?” I asked, still slightly confused.  

“To find out about George Bush the older, of course.  I’m sure we can find the answer if we can just find a bookstore.”  He was still smiling widely.  “Look, I’ve got some extra money here,” he said, patting his pocket, “and I like you.  I’ve really enjoyed meeting you and talking to you.  I’d like to find a way to give you some of my money.  I know you’d never take it as a gift.  Right?”  I nodded my head.  Of course I wouldn’t take his money.  The thought never even occurred to me.  Honestly.  “Right.  So I’m proposing a bet.”

“Oh no,” I said, almost literally backpedaling into traffic.  “No thanks.  I’m not the betting type.  Not for money.  Maybe for fun if you want to, but not for money.”  I was thinking not only of my own unenthusiastic attitude towards gambling, but my wife’s as well.

“Betting for fun is no fun at all,” he replied with a wink.  “Now just listen.  How sure are you that George Bush the older was never a Senator, a Representative, or a Governor?  What percentage would you put to it?”

“Well,” I began, “if I had to commit myself, I would say I’m fairly sure that George Bush the older wasn’t any of those things.  On a percentage basis, I guess I’d say I’m probably somewhere around 80 to 90 percent sure.”

“But if he was any one of those, which do think he would have been?”  He watched me intently as he asked the question.

“If he were any of those, it would have to be a Representative, because serving in the House is the least politically important.  It’s the only one he could have held that might not have much relevance in a presidential election, especially in comparison to serving as Vice-President for the previous eight years.”  I could see my complicated rationale was all lost on him.  I tried to explain further.  “You know, there’s 435 Representatives compared to 100 Senators and 50 governors at any given time.”  It still wasn’t working.  “I just don’t think he held any of those positions,” I concluded.

Sandy thought for a moment.  “Ok. Let’s bet 100 pounds on it, then.  You say George Bush the older never served in any of those capacities, and I’ll say he did.  What do you say?”

“100 pounds!  That’s a lot of money.  That’s like 180-something dollars.  I’ve never bet that much on anything in my life.”  I was flashing back to how much over budget we were already, the needle of the money-meter in my mind spinning wildly out of control.  The damn exchange rate had been steadily climbing since the moment we bought our tickets, as though it knew we were coming, from a dollar and a half to the pound to a dollar eighty-something.  By the time I found an ATM and withdrew more money, it could be two dollars, even more for all I knew.

“Yeah, but you said yourself that you’re eighty to ninety percent sure of yourself.  That’s not much of a bet, really, is it?”

I hesitated.  “99.9 percent is my usual threshold for betting,” I joked weakly. 

“Look, I really want to give you a little bit of money,” he said with all apparent sincerity.  “So, you pick the option that you’re 99.9 percent sure of.  I’ll take whatever you don’t.  If you want to bet that Bush the older was either a Representative or nothing, or a Senator or nothing, either way that’s fine with me.  We could even switch if you want to, and I’ll take nothing and you can have the others. I leave the choice completely up to you.”

It suddenly occurred to me that maybe I was being set up, and that maybe Sandy was, in fact, a con man, a real-life, modern-day Fagan.  But he had offered me any side of the issue, placing the outcome of the potential wager on a purely chance level for himself.  If he was being sincere, which I still felt was possible, perhaps even likely, this was simply a way to give me the best chance to win the bet.  But by leaving it entirely in my hands, whether intentionally or not, I was led straight into taking the worst possible odds for myself.  “Well, if I take the best option for me, the ‘Representative or nothing’ option,” I said, “then it’s really not going to be a gamble at all, and we’ve already established that I’m not willing to just take your money.  So . . . if we’re going to bet, I’ll have to take that George Bush the older was never a Representative, Senator or Governor.  OK?”  If Sandy were conning me, this gambit was a master stroke. 

“OK,” he said, smiling warmly, and we shook hands.  There were several ways which, in my mind, I justified making this bet with Sandy.  If I hadn’t, our encounter likely would have been over and I would’ve continued on my merry way to the London Eye with only a flaccid, fragmentary anecdote of the strange Australian who wanted to bet me about an obscure detail of a former President’s political life.  As mentioned, I had already relinquished my attachment to the idea of riding the London Eye in order to see this through to its logical end.  As I saw it, the worst possible outcome would be that I would lose the bet, and I’d be out 180 dollars.  That was a lot of money, but as I was already keenly aware, everything is expensive in London, up to and now including chance encounters with strangers.  But I was likely to have a hell of a story to show for it, which had to be worth something. 


  1. Watch out world, now that I am no longer 'anonymous' you get an eyeful, as opposed to an earful, now. I am enjoying this story and can't wait to see it unfold!
    But I am really just here to comment on the ad choices in the sidelines. I know you have no say in the matter which is why I think the choices are amusing and wind up actually enhancing the humor of your posts: today I get to choose between maternity wear, finding an Asian girlfriend, booking a flight to London (how aprapos) or buying a USS Reagan hat for $2.99

  2. KLo (formerly) Anonymous - A ha! Mystery solved! I suspected you all along. The only part I haven't figured out yet is did you do it with the candlestick in the conservatory, or the revolver in the billiard room?

    Yes, aren't you enjoying the ads? It's quite an eclectic mix, don't you think? I haven't seen the USS Reagan hat, which is good, because I can't resist a good deal on a hat.

    Part 3 of the story will be up tomorrow (Friday), so enjoy!