.......My Dinner with George. .

.......a story about a bear, the President, and a man in a raincoat

It was a bear that got me invited to dinner with the President of the United States.

No, this was not the kind of bear we Alaskans like to brag about running into while hiking or putting out the garbage. This was a fiberglass bear, similar to the pigs of Seattle, the cows of Chicago, or the moose of Toronto. Berlin, like those other cities has engaged in a public art project featuring sculptural reproductions of an animal mascot--in this case bears--which are painted by various artists and set out on sidewalks and plazas throughout the city center. They liven things up, and are generally adored by kids and adults alike................
 .. .... ..  I was asked to do a bear by Amerika Haus, the cultural arm of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. I took up their suggestion of making it look like the Statue of Liberty ("Libearty")
and agreed to have it ready for a late-June exhibit along with 124 similar bears commissioned by embassies from around the world.

In early May I was slowly making progress on the bear, when I got another call from Amerika Haus. "Can you have it finished by early next week for the President's visit to Berlin?" The plan was to somehow get the bear and the President together for a photo opportunity. Whatever the idea was, having to chop a month off the deadline didn't really go down well with me. But I thought, "OK, it's for the leader of the free world. I suppose I should make an effort." So, I spent the following several days busting my butt until 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. to meet the deadline.

blank bear

 crowned and primed

 

brown undercoat

co-worker Julian applying the green base coat
On the following Tuesday, the finished bear was delivered to a spot outside a restaurant next to the Brandenburg Gate. That's where George W. was to have dinner with the chancellor of Germany, the mayor of Berlin, and the U.S. Ambassador. Within seconds the bear was swarmed with press photographers and camera teams. Because huge anti-American demonstrations (and even riots) were being planned for Bush's visit, this Statue of Liberty bear seemed like the only positive and welcoming symbol out there. So journalists snapped it up. The next morning, large photos of "Libearty" appeared in four of Berlin's leading newspapers.

   The American diplomatic community was pretty happy with the way the bear turned out and even happier with the publicity it had generated. As a friendly gesture, the embassy invited me to be part of the hand-picked dinner crowd of 90 people who would dine with the President. Despite the fact that George is not exactly my main man, and that I was suffering from deadline fatigue, I decided to go along anyway just to experience the dog and pony show. Everyone had to go through extensive security checks at Amerika Haus. Then, we were bussed through cordoned-off streets leading to the Brandenburg Gate. Despite the

U.S. Embassy representatives on board, our three buses were continually stopped at all the checkpoints by some rather keyed-up policemen in bullet-proof vests. Eventually, under the gaze of sharpshooters on the rooftops, we made it inside the tightly sealed-off perimeter and into the restaurant.

The bear was standing patiently near the entrance waiting for its big photo-op with the President, but the only attention it received was from a bomb-sniffing dog making a security check with its handler. Then the chancellor and the mayor showed up. Also on hand were a whole lot of very intense young men in suits with cords plugged into their ears and bulges under their jackets. We had been instructed to stay seated at our tables and not make any quick movements upon the president's arrival--good advice, I suppose, for avoiding a bullet through the forehead. Suddenly there were helicopters thundering up above, a long column of flashing blue lights drove up, and all the German and American security people started to scurry around.

First into the restaurant's courtyard was a stocky young man in a very long raincoat. Since it was a warm evening without a cloud in the sky, I can only assume that the raincoat was covering up a number of large caliber weapons strapped to his body. Just like in a bad movie, the man gave us the once-over with a Clint Eastwood glint in his eye. On the heels of this walking arsenal, came George--a little larger than life--striding in at a good clip, surrounded by a tight scrum of more security people and dignitaries. It seemed as if the entire White House staff had made the trip, including Condi Rice, Ari Fleischer, and Andy Card. George immediately dived

 

The President, the chancellor, and the mayor

in among the tables and began pressing the flesh, followed very closely and nervously by his human wall of secret service agents. From the level of full-throttle hand pumping, grinning, forearm clasping, and friendly clapping on the back, one might have assumed that George thought this particular (mostly German) dinner crowd would be casting the deciding votes for his 2004 re-election bid. The recipients of his high-wattage presidential attention seemed honored and genuinely thrilled.

 

Dr. Condoleeza Rice

 Although the president didn't make it to our table, I was surprised by some brief and unexpected eye contact from his national security advisor, Ms. Rice. As I happened to look her way, it appeared as if she was flashing me quite a fetching smile from across the courtyard. I couldn't tell if she was actually looking at someone else, if she was just happy to see a non-German face in the crowd, or perhaps it really is lonely at the top.

By this time George was done working the crowd, and he disappeared with his entourage to have dinner on a secluded balcony inside the main part of the restaurant. The excitement was over, and all that was left to do was chow down. Then, after an hour and a half, the scurrying of secret service guys picked up again. The point man with the missiles and tanks under his raincoat sauntered back into the courtyard, talking surreptitiously to the microphone in his sleeve.
 The President was right behind him. This time, as he whisked by us, we got one of his chest-high, outstretched, meant-just-for-you waves and a "Thanks, g'night." The wall of protective flesh closed around him, they breezed out to the endless line of flashing blue lights, and…our dessert was served.

 

My dinner with George turned out to be pretty interesting, if only for the chance to observe the massive security machinery it takes to let the guy go out for a bite to eat. Keeping the President safe from enemies and nutcases has always been a big job, but Since Sept. 11 the bar has certainly been raised. For a short time that restaurant was probably the most secure place on the face of the earth. It became a temporary fortress: sniffed out by bomb-squad dogs, watched over by helicopters, and protected from within by an army of well-trained agents. Outside it was kept cut off from the rest of the world by an even bigger army of ten thousand German policemen, shipped into Berlin from all over the country to make sure that no one without an invitation could get within a mile of George W. Bush.

As it turned out, no photo was ever taken of him grinning with his arm around "Libearty." But, thanks to that bear I did have the rare experience of spending a couple hours inside the strange and isolated bubble from which the President of the United States views the world.

("Libearty" will be on exhibit in Berlin until Nov. 2002 with bears representing 125 nations from around the world. Click here for map.)

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© 2002 Bill C. Ray, all rights reserved