Editor’s note: As the photo gallery above reflects, several U.S. Presidents have appeared on ESPN’s airwaves through the years. On Presidents Day, Outside The Lines host Bob Ley shares his memories of his interviews with the Chief Executives.
It’s impressive enough boarding Air Force One, and being seated in the forward guest cabin, with five other passengers.
Nine days before the 1992 Presidential election, that’s where I found myself.
Suddenly, out of the hallway on the left side of the cabin there was a stir, and then standing in front of us, wearing his Presidential flight jacket, is George Herbert Walker Bush. Apparently, he made it a custom to say hello to guests prior to takeoff.
We were to fly from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland to Detroit, and had arrangements to interview the President en route about his sporting career and interests for an Outside the Lines program airing in several days.
This was the morning after the Toronto Blue Jays had defeated the Atlanta Braves in Game 6 to win the World Series. As we were interviewing President Bush in the Air Force One Conference Room, the White House staff — from 35,000 feet over Pennsylvania — was trying to arrange a congratulatory Presidential phone call to Toronto skipper Cito Gaston.
The call never came to fruition, but I spent 20 minutes with the President as he spoke of meeting Babe Ruth during Mr. Bush’s collegiate career at Yale, and getting a base hit off of Milt Pappas during a Triple A all-star game.
Fourteen years later, under very different circumstances, I interviewed President Bush at the re-opening of the Louisiana Superdome, one year after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Mr. Bush and I actually had about 15 minutes together to visit on our SportsCenter set before the short interview, where we talked about the fact our daughters had attended the same school, and I spent the rest of the time passing the signs held by fans up to the former President to autograph.
That initial 1992 Outside the Lines show also provided an opportunity to visit with former President Gerald Ford, who was probably the most accomplished athlete to ever occupy the office. He had turned down contracts with two NFL teams in favor of attending Yale Law School.
Mr. Ford, a vigorous man, was 79 at the time of our interview in Vail, Colo., but appeared years younger. He enjoyed reminiscing not only about his all-America career as a football center at the University of Michigan, but his days playing in the annual Congressional hardball baseball game.
Our invitation to ride Air Force One and interview President Bush 41 had been facilitated through his son, George W. Bush, then the owner of the Texas Rangers. I had come to know the younger Bush through my coverage of baseball issues, and a story I had reported during the First Gulf War, when ESPN profiled the son of the sitting President.
As ESPN approached its 25th anniversary in 2004, we secured an interview with President Bush 43 to speak on a number of topics. It was less than 3 years since his memorable first pitch from the Yankee Stadium mound to open Game 3 of the 2001 World Series, just 7 weeks after the terror attacks of 9/11.
I distinctly recall the emotion in the President’s eyes, as he recalled the moments leading up to that perfect strike from the rubber on the pitchers’ mound. As he pointed out, he had warmed up in the Yankees batting cage under the stands, and was warned by Yankee captain Derek Jeter, “Don’t bounce it. They’ll boo you.”
During the Clinton Presidency, ESPN hosted a two-hour Presidential Town Hall meeting on Race and Sports, in Houston.
Any Presidential public appearance is big news, with a full media contingent following the Chief Executive. Our program was scheduled for April 1998, at a time President Bill Clinton was limiting his press availabilities because of the Monica Lewinsky matter, which started making news three months earlier.
Accordingly, the White House press contingent was gathered in the back of the hall, while we had the President to ourselves, on a very different topic than what the press corps wanted to pursue with him.
It was a very lively program, with vivid differences of opinion that Mr. Clinton seemed to enjoy swirling about him.
Current ESPN NFL analyst Keyshawn Johnson — then about to begin his third season in the league — was a member of the panel, as was then-MLB analyst Joe Morgan.
I recall afterwards standing with the President in the wings, chatting about the program, along with Morgan, and NFL coach Dennis Green.
The President’s staff was standing nearby, but Mr. Clinton — famously gregarious and on his own schedule — spent a while continuing our on-air discussion.