My Warholian 15 — make that 45 — minutes

My Warholian 15 45 minutes: I’m writing this in a cab on my way to BWI for a flight back home to Nashville. I just walked out of the Old Executive Office Building where four other “real people” and I sat down for a 25-minute chat with the President of the United States. Then the five of us stood behind him while he told a room full of people why the tax cuts he has championed should be made permanent. (That’s me on the right in the picture.)

I happen to agree with his sentiment strongly. I was there as a representative small business owner who is using the increased capital expensing provisions of the Bush tax plan to invest in a wide range of hardware and software for my business. IÂ’m also a proponent of the common sense logic that Congress should make the death tax repeal permanent.

But here, IÂ’m just blogging what the experience was like
and I wonÂ’t be debating policy in this weblog. Not my thing. (You can read about the policy statements here . A press release is also on the Hammock Publishing website.)

IÂ’ll talk a little about the logistics of visiting with the President later, but first I wanted to give my impressions of the experience. The President sat with us at a conference table between me and a young stay-at-home mother of two whose husband is a police officer (and, like me, a expat Alabamian). Across from the three of us sat two other young women and an older man, an apple farmer from Gettysburg, Penn. One of the women was a single mother of two who works full time and takes graduate school classes online. The other was a mom who works fulltime.

There were a few staffers around the edges of the room, including the logistics and policy people who had planned the event and a White House photographer. The President’s Chief of Staff, Andrew Card , sat at the end of the table as a quiet observer,

Each participant had a name card in front of us and the Prersident was quick to use our first names in chatting with us about our work and families, especially asking us about how we had used any tax refunds or incentives. Only a few people knew I was going to do this, but more than one asked jokingly if I thought the President would give me a nickname. I’m happy not to disappoint them. He did. He turned to me once to ask a question and said, “How ’bout you, Hammock Man?”

He had a job to do, to draw out our insights and examples for the public remarks he was about to make. We had a job to do, as well: To be real people from out in the real world, brought into the bubble that is the White House. As one of the participants, I can confirm that nothing was scripted or rehearsed except for the advance people’s efforts to put us at ease. And despite knowing what the topic was of our discussion, any one of us could have asked or said anything we cared to.

I didn’t know I was going to particpate until 48 hours before and most of the conversations I had with White House staff regarded logistics and background. I’ve never made a campaign contribution to the President and have never been in a grip and grin situation with him. I’ve been in the White House during the Reagan years (when I worked on Capital Hill for a Democrat), but this was my first up close and personal with a President. And definitely the first time a President has used my name in a speech.

(I know I must be rambling, but again, this is blogging, what someone I know who is no Bush fan has called "the rough draft of history." So forgive me. Oh yes, why me? I was suggested to the White House staff by my friends at NFIB , who knew I was in D.C. for a few days. It turned out that an NFIB alumni was the White House policy person with whom I communicated most in working out the logistics.)

The President looks and sounds exactly like the guy on TV. He knows, I’m sure, that we all think we know him. He is charming and was as hospitable as anyone I’ve ever met. He made us feel that he was grateful to us for coming to visit him (like we would turn him down) and was genuinely comfortable in both the chit-chat and the policy talk. He especially enjoyed talking with the apple farmer as he was able to talk about the trees he is growing on his ranch in Crawford.

He shared with us an anecdote about a recent dinner he had with Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi during which the conversation turned to North Korea. He said that during the conversation, the thought occured to him that it was special that the U.S. and Japan, one-time enemies, are working together to solve a complex situation that threatens world peace. He said the experience made him curious about what future leaders in the U.S. and the leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan might one day 50 years from now be trying to solve together.

He listened intensely to each of us, making notes that he referred to later in his public remarks. I mentioned how it was hard to make plans in business during times of uncertainty, a remark he picked up as a theme in his public remarks. He had a command of the issues we were discussing and had spent time looking over the notes about us. He took notes (using a Sharpie pen) as we talked and then used those notes in the remarks he made. While he had a few pages of prepared notes, he spoke extemporaneously.

He is definitely not a wonk, but he knows clearly what he believes needs to happen for the country and its eocnomy to prosper. I don’t think the circular arguments regarding "what ifs" and "what abouts" interest him. Nor me, for that matter.

I talked to the President about my business and my employees and how difficult a time it had been in 2001 and 2002. I said something like the following to him, which I meant sincerely, “Mr. President, I never thought I would have the opportunity to say this personally to you on behalf of me and my family and those I work with and lots of people out there, After September 11, one of the most difficult situations I faced in my business was uncertainity on the part of my clients and customers and really everyone. More than anything, I appreciate the steadfast leadership you displayed after September 11 and the message of calm that sent to the American people and businesses.”

Hey, I know it sounds obsequious, but I meant it sincerely.

Other observations based on specific requests I had before the visit: The President was dressed impecibly in a conservative all-season wool gray suit (Brooks Brothers? or tailored) with a very muted plaid pattern. He wore a blue shirt and dark blue tie, nearly identical to the tie I was wearing, coincidentally. He wore cufflinks which, since I was about six inches from his arm, noticed were about the size of a dime and even looked like a dime, but had a colorful enamel finish — perhaps Lady Liberty? I was trying not to be too obvious a site-seeing redneck. He looked natural (no heavy makeup for the TV lights we were headed for), healthy and calm.

He joked with us at times, and even jestfully slammed his palm down on the table while making a point about convincing Congress to make the tax package permanent.

At the end of our private time with the President he turned a little serious and talked a bit about Iraq and the war on terrorism. I don’t recall his exact words, but his message was that it is up to America to take the lead in spreading freedom and democracy and stability in the world.

Bottom line: If George W. Bush could spend 25 minutes chatting with everybody in America like he did with me and five other folks today, he would win any election by a landslide. Despite the formality of the setting, he immediately put us all at ease with grace and hospitality. He was personable and seemed genuinely curious about each of us and our individual points of view on the subject we were there to discuss.

He’d be a great guy with whom to watch a football game.

President Bush remarks about Hammock man :

Rex Hammock is with us. Last stander. From Nashville, Tennessee. He started his own company. I love the entrepreneurial spirit. Don’t you love to be in a country where people feel comfortable about — (applause) — where people feel comfortable and free to start their own business. And by the way, government’s role is to create an environment where the entrepreneurial spirit is strong, where people feel free and comfortable doing that.

And he did, and he’s got what is called a subchapter S corporation. Many of you know what that means, but for those who don’t, it means that you get taxed at the individual income tax level. So when we cut the rates on everybody, not just a few, it helped Rex, made him a little more comfortable in his ability to plan. But more importantly, by raising the level of deductibility for small businesses to $100,000, it provided incentive for him to invest. And so this year, he told me he’s going to spend $100,000 on computers, scanners and software to help his employees in his publishing business become more productive. It means they’re more competitive. When you’re more competitive, you’ve got a more productive work force, and when you’re competitive, it means you’re more likely to stay in business. And it means you’re more likely — your work force is more likely to have steady work. And if you really get productive and can compete, it means you add employees. And he added two last year, and he plans on adding five this year.

Now, there’s a lot of Rexes in the country, and you put two on here and five on there, and all of a sudden, there’s a lot of people beginning to find jobs. And that’s important. That’s how jobs grow, through the individual decision-making of thousands of entrepreneurs and employers around the country.

He wants to invest in ’05 and ’06, same amounts. But as I told you, this aspect of the tax relief package will expire unless Congress acts. He said it’s really hard — and he’s right, by the way — really hard to be a planner with — in the face of tax uncertainty. How can you plan if you’re not certain about what the tax code looks like? And there are entrepreneurs all over the country who are uncertain about what the tax code will look like after ’06 because the tax relief plan has got uncertainties built into it. And an important aspect of the tax relief plan is the deductibility for small businesses; then it goes away. Congress needs to make all aspects of the tax code permanent so people can plan their businesses and their lives. (Applause.)

Actually, I don’t think there are a lot of Rexes…it’s a somewhat rare name. However, I couldn’t agree more with what he says. Come to think of it, maybe there are alot of Rexes in Texas.

Note: When the rexblog was moved from its old platform to WordPress, this post was somehow lost. In replacing it, the comments were deleted. Sorry for the glitch.

Surreally off-topic blogging

(Thanks to Blair for helping me post this item written a couple of hours ago as I’m in the process of making my way to BWI and have no access to the Internet.)

In the two years I’ve maintained this weblog, the vast majority of posts have been links to and comments about the magazine industry, topics I found (and continue to find) to be “underblogged” elsewhere. I chose not to make this an outlet for personal rants or political stances, primarily because I don’t enjoy weblogs with personal rants. And politics and policy are topics I deal with in my real job and frankly are too overblogged for me to spend time adding to the fray. Besides, I believe that when one gets intimately close to the political or lawmaking process, one often loses perspective of what is really happening and what the true importance of the issues are.

I say all this as a heads-up to anyone who has made the rexblog an RSS feed for its magazine news. Sometime later tonight (probably, around 10 p.m. central time), I will be posting to this blog an item that will be political in nature and while it will be related to my experience as the owner of a publishing company, it will have little to do with magazines.

I will be blogging about a meeting I just had at the White House with the President of the United States. (Believe me, that last sentence was without a doubt, the most surreal I have ever typed.)

There should be a press release at about the meeting but I won’t have web access until my flight back to Nashville, so it will be later tonight before I post the “blogging version” of the experience.

I didn’t attend this meeting as a reporter or interviewer, so what you’ll get later will be a blogger’s-view of getting to talk with the President about a specific topic of shared interest: the need for permanence in tax reform.