December 9, 2012


How Two Presidents Helped Me Deal With Love, Guilt, and Fatherhood : Guidance from Bill Clinton and George W. Bush taught the author how to accept and understand his son's Asperger's syndrome. (Ron Fournier, December 4, 2012, National Journal)

Our noses were practically touching the wall. Tall, white, and seamless, it was the only thing standing between us and the president of the United States. "Stay right there," a White House aide told me, my wife, and three children. "The president will be with you in a minute." Suddenly, the wall opened; it was a hidden door to the Oval Office. "Come on in, Fournier!" shouted George W. Bush. "Who ya' dragging in?"

It was my last day covering the White House for the Associated Press, and this 2003 visit was a courtesy that presidents traditionally afford departing correspondents. I introduced my wife, Lori, and two daughters, Holly and Abby, before turning to their 5-year-old brother. "Where's Barney?" Tyler asked.

"He's coming!" Bush replied as his Scottish terrier scampered into the room. "Let's do a photo!"

As the most powerful man on Earth prepared to pose for a picture, my son launched into a one-sided conversation, firing off one choppy phrase after another with machine-gun delivery. "Scottish terriers are called Scotties, they originated from Scotland, they can be traced back to a single female named Splinter II, President Roosevelt had one, he called it Fala, Dad says he kept him in the office down there when he was swimming, there's one in Monopoly, my favorite is the car ..."

I cringed. Tyler is loving, charming, and brilliant--he has a photographic memory--but he lacks basic social skills. He doesn't know when he's being too loud or when he's talking too much. He can't read facial expressions to tell when somebody is sad, curious, or bored. He has a difficult time seeing how others view him. Tyler is what polite company calls awkward. I've watched adults respond to him with annoyed looks or pity. Bullies call him goofy, or worse.

But the president was enchanted. Waiting for Tyler to take a breath, he quickly changed the subject with a joke. "Look at your shoes," Bush told Tyler while putting a hand on his shoulder and steering him toward the photographer. "They're ugly. Just like your dad's." Tyler laughed.

Ten minutes later, we were walking out of the Oval Office when Bush grabbed me by the elbow. "Love that boy," he said, holding my eyes. 

I thought I understood what he meant. It took me years to realize my mistake.


When he's not biking or golfing, George W. Bush spends time in his nondescript office in a suburban Dallas bank building. In the cozy reception area, orange leather chairs line the walls, upon which hang pictures of the 43rd president hosting assorted world leaders at Camp David. Tyler pointed to former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and asked me, "Was he an Elvis fan?" How did he know?

"He ain't nothing but a hound dog," Tyler said, making us both laugh.

After a few minutes, Bush's aide came for us. "I changed my mind," Tyler said as we made our way to the  office. "You do this." But he relaxed as soon as he saw Bush. The ex-president was tilted back in his chair with his feet propped on a neat desk and a coffee cup marked "POTUS" in his hands. Tyler seemed to grasp that Bush was not taking himself--or us--too seriously. After quick handshakes and hellos, Bush got down to business.

"Going to school?" the former president asked my son.

"Yes," Tyler replied.

"Do you like school?"

"Pretty good."

"Favorite subject?"

"American studies."

"Do you like to read?"

"Yeah. I read all the time. I don't have a favorite topic."

"Fiction? Nonfiction? Sports?

"I don't know much about sports."


"I really don't like mysteries."

"Most 14-year-olds don't like to read," Bush said, stretching for a compliment.

Worried that the conversation was going nowhere, I reminded Tyler what Clinton had asked him to do eight days earlier.

"Oh, yeah," he said to Bush. "Bill Clinton sends his best."

Bush smiled warmly. "We've been friends," he said. "We've shared experiences. We're like brothers."

I could feel my stomach tightening, worried that Bush would consider Tyler rude or obtuse. I nervously change the subject to sports, a passion Bush and I share. "Stop butting in," I wrote in my notebook. Bush politely engaged with me but quickly turned back to Tyler.

"So, Tyler, at 14 this is probably an unfair question to ask, but do you have any idea what you'd like to be when you get older?

"Maybe a comedian."

"Maybe a what?" Bush said, a bit surprised.

"A comedian."

"Well," Bush replied, "I'm a pretty objective audience. You might want to try a couple of your lines out on me."

"Nah," Tyler demurred. "I don't have any material"

I tried to prod Tyler into sharing a bit of the stand-up act that won him second prize at a school talent show. I nudged him about the improv classes he was taking.

Bush let him off the hook. "Ah, interesting," he said. "I've met a lot of people. You know how many people ever said, 'I think I'd like to make people laugh?' You're the only guy. That's awesome."

Bush had connected. With an impish smile, he told Tyler about the time that rocker/humanitarian Bono was scheduled to visit the White House. The president's aides, knowing that their boss was unimpressed by celebrities, worried that Bush would blow it. "[Chief of Staff] Josh Bolten comes in and said, 
'Now, you know who Bono is, don't you?' Just as he's leaving the Oval Office, I said, 'Yeah, he's married to Cher.' " Bush raised an eyebrow. "Get it?" he asked Tyler. "Bone-oh. Bahn-oh."

Afterward, I asked Tyler about the Bono joke. He said, "Sounds like something goofy you would say." But for me, the exchange was an eye-opener. Tyler was terse, even rude, but Bush was solicitous. Rather than being thrown by Tyler's idiosyncrasies, he rolled with them, exactly as he had in the Oval Office nine years earlier. He responded to every clipped answer with another probing question. Bush, a man who famously doesn't suffer fools or breaches of propriety, gave my son the benefit of the doubt. I was beginning to think that people are more perceptive and less judgmental toward Tyler than his own father is. Bush certainly was. [...]

On the trips to Arkansas and Texas, I saw through both presidents a successful future for Tyler--in Clinton, big possibilities for a boy with a sharp mind and rough edges. In Bush, Tyler's gift of humor as a means to find confidence in himself and connections with others. I learned that while Tyler was not my idealized son, he was the ideal one. In the Oval Office, years ago, I thought Bush had ordered me to "love that boy" in spite of his idiosyncrasies. Now, I realize, I love my son because of them.

This is what I tried to tell Tyler in the car outside the bookstore. "I get it, Dad," he said dismissively. "Now can we go home? I want to play video games." And so we go.

Posted by at December 9, 2012 8:27 PM

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