Posted Saturday Dec. 15 George H. W. Bush ’48 retired from politics 14 years ago, but he still knows how to work a room.
On Friday evening in New Haven, after all, nearly 200 guests crowding Mory’s jockeyed for the chance to shake the 83-year-old elder statesman’s hand. The black-tie-optional soirée, with a $100 suggested donation, honored the 41st president, who had been chosen to receive the 2008 Mory’s Cup, awarded annually to “the individual judged to have been of conspicuous service to Yale,” in the words of Mory’s manager James Shumway.
“I don’t even really know what it is,” Bush said of the award in a brief interview with the News. “I’m just honored to have been invited.”
Guests began arriving around 5:30 p.m., entering the York Street private club past the dozen students gathered outside, pining for a glimpse of the former president.
Inside the Temple Bar were two open bars, shrimp platters, cheese and crackers, fruit displays, warm baked Brie, caprese skewers and the seasonal melodies of an accordion player. Servers bearing clams, lobster rolls, chicken satay, chicken quesadillas and prosciutto-wrapped asparagus circulated among the invitees, who were selected by Mory’s.
They included the restaurant’s governing board, Pierson Master Harvey Goldblatt, history professor John Lewis Gaddis, Association of Yale Alumni Director Mark Dollhopf, several graduate students, Yale Chief Investment Officer David Swensen and University President Richard Levin. Among the few undergraduates in attendance were the outgoing chairs of the Yale Political Union parties, who frequently patronize the restaurant.
As they snacked on the hors d’oeuvres, the anticipation mounted for the former president’s arrival.
A few minutes past 6 p.m., the spate of cameras flashing outside signaled Bush’s imminent entrance. Preceded by a small entourage of boxy Secret Service agents with telltale coiled wires trailing from their ears, Bush emerged from the foyer dressed in a trim tuxedo with a red boutonniere.
As he ventured into the first room, the entire crowd shuffled toward him and continually readjusted to anticipate his projected path. Guests edged forward to steal a handshake, a brief exchange and, if they were lucky, a photograph.
Handsome Dan was one such lucky guest.
Bush cut the line to the bartender, who served him a glass of vodka on the rocks with two olives. He approached a portrait of his younger self — the captain of the baseball team, perched on a fence wearing a letterman’s sweater — hanging in the corner of the main room and posed for a photograph with it.
In his conversations with guests, the former president reminisced on his baseball glory days or turned to his chief retirement pursuits: golf and skydiving. As for the former, he said he has given up after repeatedly whiffing on putts but hopes his upcoming back operation will restore his balance. As for the latter, he said he can no longer fly solo and has to parachute in tandem.
But the thrill is just the same, he said.
Asked by the News what had changed most at Yale since he was a student, Bush said he had trouble judging since he lived off-campus with his wife all four years, so he never felt immersed in student life.
“There are lots of people saying ‘I was the president’s roommate,’” he said. “But I only had one roommate — named Barbara Bush.”
Bush said he had not felt invested in the residential college system, which was still new when he attended, and he did not seem to remember the residential college to which he belonged.
When told he was often listed as one of Davenport College’s notable alumni, he said, “My son is, but me?” This reporter replied in turn that Davenport’s current master said Bush was a Davenport Fellow.
“Can he write a check for that?” Bush replied. “I thought it was Pierson!”
Guests said they were impressed by Bush’s charisma and lucidity. John Lapides ’72 said he was one of the first people to shake Bush’s hand, and when they passed again later, Bush recognized him. “I already met you,” Bush remembered.
As Bush neared the terminus of his sociable traipse across the room and approached the base of the stairs that would take him to his private dinner, the Yale Precision Marching Band, prompt on its 6:55 p.m. cue, streamed toward him.
When Shumway asked the YPMB to perform, he told them in an e-mail, “I definitely want the ‘intrusion’ factor to be present.” Accordingly, the band’s 35 members strained to maneuver clunky sousaphones and bass drums through the crowd and arranged around the back of the main room.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” bellowed Drum Major Dave DeAngelis ’08. “Read my lips: We are the members of” — as the rest joined him — “the Yale Precision Marching Band!”
The strident notes of “Bulldog” filled the room, as guests either covered their ears or sang along. The YPMB continued with renditions of Neil Young’s “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” and Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting.”
Musicians concluded with the football anthem “Down the Field.” As the band crouched during the song’s last strain, as is their custom, Bush knelt down with them, grasped a percussion mallet and posed for a picture.
“It was definitely one of those ‘only at Yale’ moments,” said Rita Alway ’09, who plays saxophone in the YPMB.
The band’s performance signaled the end of the cocktail hour, and the Mory’s board headed upstairs for private dinner with their honoree. But before Bush could join them, YPMB manager Chris Young ’09 — a staff photographer for the News — thrust a marker and brass instrument toward him and cried, “Mr. President! Will you please sign this mellophone?”
As Bush and the board moved upstairs, the Mory’s staff began cleaning up, gently prodding the lingering guests toward the door. “You have to leave now,” a waiter said. “I just want to let you know before the Secret Service does.”