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.