Presidential Encounters: Driving Reagan, Caddying for Clinton, Playing Obama, and More
What it’s like to ferry the President around town, move into the White House, make a living impersonating the chief executive—and more tales of encounters with the commander in chief.
Driving Ronald Reagan
Joe LaSorsa, a retired Secret Service agent, drove the presidential limousine for Reagan in 1984.
When you’re driving a 13,000-pound armored vehicle, there’s a slew of idiosyncrasies. The bulletproof windows are made of thick glass, and you have to get used to the depth distortion when you’re looking through it. You can get bleary-eyed, but you get used to it. Then there’s the weight factor. You have to learn what speed you can take a corner to make it comfortable for the President so he isn’t sliding around in the back.
There’s no chatting in the limo. If the President wants something, he talks to the detail leader, who sits in the right front seat. As the driver, you’re part of the evacuation team should something happen. So you need to be ready to get the President to safety should someone start shooting.
When I drove for Reagan, there was a lot of routine travel in Washington. You have routes that you run consistently—to a hotel, the Capitol. But when the President visits another city, we go four, five, even six days in advance. We drive the routes he’ll use and look for construction, obstructions, potential security issues. His motorcade affects a city’s traffic, so the local police always have input. The day before the President arrives, we drive the routes two or three times. The Secret Service prides itself on keeping the President on time.
—As told to Shane Harris
Living in the Johnson White House
Lynda Bird Johnson Robb is a daughter of former President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
I moved into the White House in January 1964, when I was 19. I had a wonderful room, the one Caroline Kennedy had lived in, overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue. I wanted to find out all the famous people who had stayed in my room, so I started asking everyone, even President Eisenhower, who was visiting Daddy one day. He said, “I think Queen Elizabeth’s lady-in-waiting stayed in that room.”
I was looking for somebody more important, so I kept researching. I found out that little Willie Lincoln died in that room and then the Lincolns locked it up, never to go in it again. The White House curator also told me that after President Lincoln died, my room was where they performed the autopsy. After that, I didn’t want to learn anything more.
I was friends with the Secret Service. They are around you on eight-hour shifts, three people to a shift. I would call down and say, “I want to go to a bookstore,” and they would go with me. They liked me because I also liked to go to football games. I never appreciated enough that I didn’t have to drive or find a place to park. That was one of the nicest things.
That and the White House operators. They could find anybody. Literally. We would say, “Could you please get so-and-so on the phone for me?” and they would track her down, wherever she was.
I didn’t leave anything behind when I moved out. No carved initials, no secret messages. But when my firstborn, Lucinda, was a baby, I pushed her buggy through all the rooms and took pictures so she would have a memory of her time there.
—As told to Carol Ross Joynt
Getting a Pardon From George W. Bush
Leslie Collier is a farmer just outside Charleston, Missouri.
It was November 2008.
I work at a cattle sale in Patton, Missouri, every Monday, and we were sorting a big herd of cattle when my cell phone rang. It was the White House. A lady informed me that I had been pardoned by President Bush. It was quite a shock.
A buddy of mine was helping me sort the cattle. He looked at me and said, “What was all that about?” I said, “I just got a presidential pardon.” He said, “You got a presidential what?”
The pardon was for an eagle-poisoning incident in 1993. We had lots of coyotes, and I came up with the bright idea to get rid of some of them. I put out poison, and it did kill a bunch of coyotes. I didn’t realize that if another animal eats one that’s been poisoned, it’ll die too. Never really thought about bald eagles. Hadn’t seen any over there. But some eagles ate the dead coyotes. The first one was found by a guy fishing on the Mississippi River. A few days went by, they found another one.
A local conservation agent called and told me they’d found a dead eagle. I was very concerned. I always liked bald eagles. When I was a little ol’ kid, we’d go over on the Mississippi River and it was really unusual to see a bald eagle. When you did, man, you thought it was something.
For a while, it looked like they were going to put me in jail. In the end, I paid a big fine and was on two years’ probation. If you’re a convicted felon, you’re banned from owning a firearm for life. I probably had nine or ten guns at the time. My dad had to come get them.
Lanie Black was my state representative. I’ve known Lanie for several years. He knew what kind of person I was and that I regretted what I’d done. He worked with Jo Ann Emerson, who’s our congresslady. Catherine Hanaway—she kind of ran George Bush’s campaign in the state of Missouri—she was involved toward the end. She called Lanie and said, “I just want to know what kind of fellow this guy is. Tell me all about him.” And so Lanie did. And she told him, “Well, it looks like this thing’s gonna happen for y’all.”
To me, what was really unusual is President Bush had absolutely nothing to gain by pardoning me. Right after it happened, a reporter called and wanted to know what my political connection was. I said, “I started with my state representative.”
She said, “That’s not very close to the President.”
I said,“Well, no, ma’am.”
—As told to Libby Copeland
Caddying for Bill Clinton
James D. Spaid was a caddy at Robert Trent Jones golf club in Gainesville, Virginia, from 1992 to 2003.
I took a job as a caddy as a stopgap after ending my military career. I was relatively new to the club when President Clinton first came.
I didn’t know how it would go because, honestly, I didn’t vote for the guy. But I can’t say I was nervous. In the ’80s, I had been assigned to the Presidential Escort—for Ronald Reagan and then George Bush—so I was used to being near the President.
Still, nothing that’s required of you in the Presidential Escort is conducive to a good round of golf. The formality and the tension don’t work—golf is supposed to be a time to relax. In the Presidential Escort I couldn’t stand at ease, joke around, or say anything but “Yes sir, Mr. President, sir.”
Our first round together was uneventful. It’s the second time that sticks in my head. It had been several weeks since the first, but he walked up like we were old friends. He’s putting his arm around me, pulling me in close, and I’m trying not to let on that I’m uncomfortable. And then he says, “James, how is your son Zach doing? He must be what—just over eight months now?” He was right, down to the week, and I was so surprised that he remembered my name, much less my son’s. I always say that if you want to get to know somebody, you take him out on the golf course. What I learned about President Clinton was that he was very generous and kind.
—As told to Mary Yarrison
Impersonating Barack Obama
Louis Ortiz, 41, performs with a troop of political impersonators called the Politicos Comedy Brigade.
Nobody needed hope and change more than I did in 2008. After I lost my job as a phone technician, I was sleeping on my parents’ couch. But then a funny thing happened: People started telling me I looked like presidential candidate Barack Obama. I didn’t notice the resemblance at first—I thought people were just making fun of my big ears. But once I shaved my facial hair, I could see America’s future 44th President in the mirror.
I learned that presidential look-alikes can make decent money. So I bought my first suit, had headshots taken, and found a talent agent. After Obama was elected, my phone started ringing. I played Obama in a South Korean commercial and a Japanese film. I even performed for the Dalai Lama in Australia.
Looking like Obama is easy, but it takes practice to impersonate him. I studied his speeches and worked with veteran Bill Clinton impersonator Tim Watters. Now I can make as much as $10,000 for a single event, which allows me to support my fiancée and two children in Florida the way I never could before the 2008 election.
The funny thing is how many people treat me like I really am the President. After Osama bin Laden was killed, people were high-fiving me on the street. But I also get criticized for Obamacare.
I don’t care what John Boehner says, President Obama is definitely a job creator. I’m living proof.
—As told to Luke Mullins
This article appears in the January 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.