On Assignment from the President

Topeka Capital-Journal
June 1, 1992

I ended the month of May with a blooper, and probably I’m starting June with another one, but some of us never learn. Last week I wrote that State Senator Frank Gaines of Augusta, who has announced his retirement, was a good man. It turns out he was a better man than I gave him credit for being. I should have known .

He was in the Legislature 24 years, and I noted that if he signed up for the plush pension plan legislators voted for themselves, he would qualify for about $25,000 per year. I added there was no reason to believe he hadn’t signed.

Since then I have been informed by a good friend of his, who would know, that Gaines didn’t take advantage of the souped-up pension. He deserves this apology and the respect of all of us.

I also have sentenced myself to do severe penance for this mistake, but not before I start June on the wrong foot by giving in to the irresistible urge to drop big names. It comes over me occasionally, and I am a pushover.

Maybe this one was caused by the recent new evidence from the two doctors that president John F. Kennedy was killed by two shots, fired by one man. Maybe it started me thinking about him and about my days as a dedicated public servant in Washington.

The story goes back 30 years, to the days when all public servants were dedicated and all Kansas State football fans were long-suffering. The story doesn’t have anything to do with K-State, but it does have a little to do with football.

I was the administrator of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. I wasn’t particularly physically fit, but I was known far and wide as a good sport, so I was qualified. Now I had a corner office with the standard two flags and a picture of Kennedy. My secretary was named Maggie, who was an elderly “Nervous Nelly” type, but who could cover for me if I took the afternoon off to play golf.


On this particular morning, I was in the men’s room when Maggie did something that, at the time, I thought took an extraordinary amount of courage for her to do. She later explained it with something she always had wanted to do.

What she did was fling opened the door to the men’s room and shout, “Mr. Snider, the president is calling you.” Unfortunately, I was in there alone, so her message didn’t impress anybody but me. Since Maggie wasn’t into practical jokes, I was deeply impressed by her message.

That was only the beginning. I hustled to the phone and sure enough, the woman at the other end said the president wanted to see me immediately. I gulped and said I’d be there. It never occurred to me to offer some smart-aleck reply, like, “Well, if he wants to see me, he knows where I am.”

There are thousands of taxicabs in Washington, and that morning I was glad of it. I hailed one, and on the ride over to the White House I thought of reasons the president might want to see me;

  • He was upset with his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, and wanted me to replace him.
  • He wanted me to address a joint session of Congress on the values of physical fitness and sports.
  • He wanted me to go to Russia to see why they were winning so many Olympic medals.
  • He wanted me to take over the FBI or the CIA or maybe the CYO.

When I arrived, the guards at the gate knew I was coming and told me to go directly to the Oval Office. Once inside the White House, I ran into Ted Reardon, a presidential aide and the only person in the mansion I knew. He said he had no idea why the president wanted to see me.

“But don’t worry,” he said. “If he was going to fire you he’d have me do it.” I hadn’t thought of that.

As I approached the Oval Office and Secret Service men cleared me, my knees got weak. I wasn’t sure I could run the FBI or speak to a joint session. Then I was there, in the inner sanctum, and Ken O’Donnell, the president’s appointments secretary, greeted me by name. My courage returned. I was ready for any major assignment.

Just as O’Donnell was saying it would be a couple of minutes, the door behind him opened and there was the president. I was totally in awe until I saw the two men with him. One was Tug Wilson, commissioner of the Big 10 conference, and the other was Asa Bushnell, commissioner of the now defunct ECAC.

I was deflated. This whole thing had something to do with football.

The president, smiling, shook hands with them and with me, and departed, and O’Donnell said, “the president wants you to take these gentlemen to lunch in the White House mess. We’ll call and make arrangements.”

He said it like I knew where the White House mess was. Along the way, I had to stop and ask. There was a table waiting for us, but I don’t recall it as being a particularly eventful lunch. I don’t even remember the football matter that caused them to see the president.

I reported all this to Bud Wilkinson, Kennedy’s consultant on physical fitness and sports and my boss. He still was coaching football at Oklahoma, and his reaction to my luncheon was, “I’m glad I missed it.”

Roughly a year later, I was summoned to the White House again, on another football matter. Kennedy had been assassinated, and there was some public pressure to cancel the weekend’s football games. Wilkinson was in Nebraska, where OU was scheduled to play.

Reardon told me to call Bud and urge him to play the game, saying the president would have wanted it that way. I called, and Wilkinson said neither he nor Husker coach Bob Devaney considered canceling. The game went on. Life went on, too, but after JFK, it was never the same.

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