Dr. Frank Kavanaugh

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My cousin Nola, who I dearly love, wrote me a long letter to ask if I would help with some recollections about dining at the White House that might be worth sharing with the Logan County Woman's Club in Kentucky. It seems she recalled, to my surprise, that I has once been to a state dinner. It's funny but I do not remember the entree, the appetizer or the desert, but I do fondly remember going to the White House for lunch on other occasions, partriculary the days when Mexican food was featured in the dining room. A favorite of mine, shared by several presidents.

Allowing for my failing memory, but not wanting to let down a favorite cousin, I considered that the women of Logan County might have an interest in my small encounters with, and impressions of, some other women who's paths I had crossed.

It was Halloween of 1967 when I arrived in Washington, D. C. , to begain a new phase of my career. Because of my background in television, I had been drawn there by an attractive offer to take over a motion picture company that did documentary films, educational films, films done at the requests of foreign countries, commercials for television and political campaigns as well.

While that seemed rather easy and straightforward I quickly became involved in other activities, as a faculty member at the George Washington University and the executive director of an educational foundation. This eclectic mix of activity provided me with the opportunity to ben in and out of the White House on occasion and the chance to collect some experiences that are warmly recalled.

While all first ladies probably deserve more credit than society ever accords them, it seems to me that Lady Bird Johnson would have to rank at the top of the list. While not all great leaders are hard to live with President Johnson probably understood political power better than any president of the six I would eventually encounter. He was quick to exercise his power, often abusively, in personal relationships as well. It appeared Lady Bird was not exempt. Although I had little direct encounter with Lady Bird the stories about Lyndon's behavior and comments are legend among all the stories about presidents who occupied the White House during the years of my visits. One I enjoyed, occurred when I was at Ft. Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina for a demonstration of military power being put on by the 82nd Airborne. When the program concluded, several helicopters returned to the center of the field in front of the revewing stand to begin collect the distinguished guests. The president, of course, would be the first to leave. A young officer approached President Johnson and said, "Mr. President, your helicopter is ready." The president looked unsmilingly at the young officer and replied, "Son, they're all my helicopters." The uncomfortableness and lack of amusement I'm sure Lady Bird felt then, would be experienced often. Like many of us, I often think of Lady Bird when I see so much of the simple beautification of our land that she had such a role in inspiring.

It was not too long after that I would have the chance to visit with Mamie Eisenhower at her farm in Gettysburg. President Eisenhower was by then dead and Mamie lived alone at the farm. I had just completed a film about a small incident that occured in the Battle of the Buldge during World War Two. Her son John, a former Ambassador to Belgiuum, had been helpful with the project. I planned to take the film out to the farm as I thought it would give her pleasure to see it, and to share John's involvement.

 

 

I arrived at the farm and drove up a long driveway that led to a big electronic metal gate surrounded by woods. As I approached the gate and stopped I realized that no one was there, no guardhouse, and as far as I could see no bell to ring to attract anyone's attention. While I considered this dilemma, a tree spoke to me and said, "Good afternoon Mr. Kavanaugh. Please continue up the driveway when the gate opens." It was then that I realized that a loudspeaker was mounted in the tree, as were some video cameras, and that I was speaking to a secret service agent up at the house. Upon arriving at the house on of several agents in constant attendance escorted me to the front porch of the house where Mrs. Eisenhower was involved in some afternoon libation, which I came to learn was a daily pleasure. The house lacked all the pretense that you might assume a presidents home would have. It overlooked a small bluff and along one side was a porch that ran the lenght of the house, with comfortable rockers much as you would find an amy typical farm home.

I had tea, feeling the need to retain my alert edge, and we spent a very enjoyable couple of hours talking, looking at the film and talking some more about the circumstances surrounding the story. The film concerned itself with a firefight that occured oover a period of several days during the Battle of the Buldge for control of a chateau at teh edge of the Ardennes Forest. Our film team managed to locate and bring together in the chateau, the American officers who led their tank platoon, the German commander of the Panzer tank division, a Belgian resistance officer who aided the Americans and the daughter of the count who owned the chateau. She cared for the wounded of both sides in the basement as the chateau changed hands several times.

Mrs. Eisenhower and I talked about the feeling each participant who returned 25 years later to come face to face with others. As I left, I could not help feeling the kindness she showed me and how that kindness probably reflected the manner of her husband. The campaign slogan"I like Ike", was subscribed to by most everybody. I also felt Mamie was fortunate to be able to remain there at the farm that had been her homestead for so long.

Some years later I was to be involved with a group of some twenty-five or thirty women lawyers from all over the world, who had come to Washington to formulate a policy about women's rights and then to present that policy to the United Nations in New York for adoption. Pat Nixon agreed to receive them at the White House for an afternoon tea. She was gracious in the time she managed to give each woman and to chat about their interests and each of the countries represented. I had expected that a receiving line would move quickly, but that was not the case. This may have been a reflection of her husbands foreign affairs focus, but there was certainly more individual attention paid to each guest than anyone expected.

 
Over these years I came to realize that the atmosphere of any White House was very much a reflection of the personality of the first family in occupancy at the time. The Nixon White House was a very cold and formal place. The President always was very charming in a one on one meeting, but that charm seemed to disappear when a group was involved. Mrs Nixon so often seemed to give off the same kind of coldness, yet these women lawyers, in the time they would spend with her individually on that day would find her very warm and interested.

Through all of my years in Washington, I would be invited to only one state dinner, but if I could have picked the event based upon the honored guests, I could not have done better. It was to be the White House State Dinner given by President and Mrs. Ford for President and Mrs. Anwar Sadat, and then the reciprocating dinner given by the Sadat's for the Ford's. The latter to be held two night's later at a mansion on Massachusetts Avenue owned by the Cleveland Society and rented out for such affairs. It was only a couple of block from the Egyptian Embassy.

Some background is perhaps in order to explaiin how I came about these invitations. Many months earlier I had prevailed on Ambassador Ashraft Gorbal, the Egyptian Ambassador to the United States to let me undertake the production of a motion picture about Mrs. Sadat. Up to that times she had been virtually overshadowed in the media by the attention given her husband, yet was perhaps the most beautiful first lady on the world scene during those years. This occurred at a time when Egypt was very concerned about its image with the western world and some of us felt she could become a very strong western of good will. With her light skin and Anglo features she did not look at all like the American stereotype of an Arab and both we and Ambassador Gorbahl felt she could cause Americans to feel that perhaps they and Egyptians had more in common than they had previously realized.

 

The Ambassador carefully spoke of our intentions to the first family of Egypt and they accepted our offer. I spent ten days with Jihan Sadat on the next she and President Sadat made to the United States. For most of that time she was separated from the President doing the things that interested her most. One of her strong concerns was for those in her country who were severely injured in the "six day war," and she wanted to visit the best of the American rehabilitation hospitals. We took her to the Rusk Institute in New York City, established by the Dr. Howard Rusk, where she saw many modern miracles of rehabilitative medicine. I remember how taken she was, as was I, with a black man named Joe. Joe had suffered severe spinal damage and his eyes were the only parts of his body over which he had any voluntary muscle control. The Rusk staff had set him up with a wheelchair. The chair was controlled by the impulses received from electronic sensors taped to Joe's temples. By moving his eyes in different patterns and directions Joe controlled the motion and functions of his chair. Mrs. Sadat subsequently arranged with the Institute to have the doctors in Egypt begin to train at the Rusk Institute. We also went with Mrs. Sadat to the United Nations, the Kennedy Center, and to meet with various groups concerned with human rights in genereal and women's rights in particular. Our time together and our film culminated with the state visit at the White House. Shortly after her return to Egypt, the woman who wrote the film delivered it to her, in person, at the summer palace just outside Cario. The film is titled The First Lady of the Nile.

My remembrances of the state dinner with President and Mrs. Ford are few. The impact of the occasion tends to block out some of the details, like who wore and ate what and what was the china like. I do remember spending most of the evening talking to Mohammed Hacki who was the Egyptian Minister of Information. Through an American and British education he had probably a major part of his life in the west.

The strongest image of the state dinner for me came at the very beginning. Most of the guests were standing around a large entrance hall just inside the front door of the White House and the Marine Band was playing cocktail music. At a point the music stopped abruptly and the lull drew the attention of the assembled auduence. A loud amplified voice announced "ladies and gentlemen, President and Mrs. Gerald Ford and President and Mrs. Anwar Sadat." At the south side of the hall was a wide staircase, carpeted in red, which curved off to both sides at the top. At one side appeared the Fords and at the other appeared the Sadats. They met at the center of the top stair and walked four abreast down the stairs as the Marine Band played "Hail to the Chief." It was a moment that made quite an impression.

The state dinner at the White House went smoothly with traditional toasts following dinner. The first toast was by President Ford to President Sadat, and then a reciprocating toast by President Sadat.

Two nights later when President Sadat had his dinner for the Fords' at the Cleveland House, the toasts were far more noteworthy. President Sadaz, eloquently made the first toast to President Ford. He spoke of his personal gratitude and the gratitude of the Egyptain people for the goodwill and the cooperative efforts of the respective countries in furthering the cause of peace in the middle east. When President Fords' turn came he extended his own goodwill to President Sadat and included his high regard for the Israel people. It shocked the crowd, I was not certain that President Ford realized what he had said until after he was again seated. No memeber of the press ever reported the slip. My immediate thought followed the lines of the often suggested joke that President Ford had as a young man played too much football without his helmet. I could easily understand how President Ford could be sitting there thinking about the problems between the Egyttian's and the Israelis, and focusing his subcoinscious on the Israelis.

I did feel tremendous awe in the presence of President Anwar Sadat. He was a man, who while imprisoned, came to realize the tremendous human costs of a continuing Arab-Israelis conflict, and chose later, when president, to risk his life in making the trip to Israel to extend the olive branch. He knew as he did this, that it would greatly increase the likelihood of his own assassination by Egyptian hardliners.

After our motion picture was released, Mrs Sadat went on to become tremendously popular in the west. She began to be featured by the American media, which unfortunately made her less popular in her own country. The Egyptians in her homeland felt that she had in many ways overstepped the coundaries of a proper Muslim woman's role. She loved America very much and following the assassination of President Sadat spent much of her time teaching at the University of Georgia.

I would like to share with you a feeling I have about President Gerald Ford. You cannot help but feel in his presence, that you are with a good man. While history will probably not single him out for signal accomplishments, most would agree that he had the political skill and personal manner toheal the country when his time came to ascend to the presidency.

Mrs. Ford contributed a humanness to the identity and position of first lady; allowing those who would follow to be recongnized as having identities of their own, a frailty all of us posses and a greater ease in emerging as individuals. Her personal battles with alcoholism and breast cancer made it easier for women throughout our country to acknowledge publicly that they too had fought similar fights, and probably to feel they were less alone in their battles.

 

 
 

The theme of assassination would recur in my life. Most everyone can recall exactly where they where and what they were doing when President John Kennedy was shot, and I can as well. I also clearly remember March 30, 1981. I was sitting in one of the offices I used at the George Washington University School of Medicine, which was just across the street from the university hospital. About two that afternoon I learned that President Reagan had been shot as he left the Washington Hilton some three miles away, and that he had just arrived at the hospital.

My reactions were two. First I selfishly hoped he would not die in our hospital, and secondly realising there was nothing I do I went home. As fate and good care would have it the President was released about ten days later.

Following President Reagan's return to work, various producers and networks begin to talk about making a movie that would recreate the assassination attempt and detail the vasious turning points in his care. It seemed to me since I was the universities' foremost filmmaker, and that so many of the people and locations involved were part if our university, that it was an unusual opportunity for me to make a film about the experience. Also an opportunity for the hospital to have the story told in a manner that would be accurate and in the best interests of those involved. The President of the university agreed, and all the straff supported our undertaking.

My first concern was whether the telling of the story on television might inspire other unbalanced individuals to make copycat assassination attempts. The Secret Service said they felt it would not, and that in fact there would probably be a positive educational value in helping others who might someday be involved in such an event to understand the prior preparations needed to manage and conduct an effective response to such as incident.

My goal was to complete a television special that would air nationally on the first anniversary of the assassination attempt. I had the better part o a year to produce the program. The film treatment style I chose was to recreate the events involved beginning with the actual gunshot through the first couple of days. After that period, for all practical purposes, the president was out of danger. I wanted to make it different from the normal drama, and try and bring back together all the actual doctors, nurses, police and Secret Service who were each a part of those events. Also, if I could, to try to involve the President himself in some way. Many of those involved were reluctant to participate in the filming as they felt they were not actors and might look foolish in any reinactment. Over time I convinced all of them that it would be credible, although I was not all that sure myself.

The next nine months were spent researching those first couple of days and finding out exactly what had happened. During that experience I came to learn that people involved in a crisis are often so transfixed and focused on their own actions, that they are frequently unaware of what others nearby are doing, or even who is standing next to them. The task was more time consuming than I had expected. When it was time to write a script I decided that we would create no dialogue from what those involved said that they had actually said and felt at the time. Once the script was completed and the filmiing planned, it took only two weeks to complete most of the production.

Shortly after the president had originally been released from the hospital, the three principal doctors who attended his care drove down to the White House to see how he was doing. I thought that recreating this experience might be a warm way to finish out the story and to see President Reagan well and fit again. I knew it would be hard for the President to turn me down, out of no other reason than gratitude to those who had saved his life. After some disagreement between his closest advisors, he cordially agreed.

We planned to replay the original house call accompanied by the film crews. To our frustration we had to schedule this about six times before it ever happened. On some days the President's office would call me and say that greater demands had preempted his schedule. When that was not the problem, one of the doctors would call and say they had an emergency that required their attention. They were, of course, doctors and not actors, so the current needs of other patients took precedence.

One day it all finally came together. We put the three doctors in one car with a cameraman in the back seat and led that car with another film car. We drove down to the White House, and the guard at the front gate checked the manifest of names and then opened the black metal security gates to let us drive up the big circular driveway leading to the front door of the White House. As the doctors left their car they were followed and preceded by the cinematographers with cameras rolling. Just inside the front door a handsome black man, dressed in formal butler attire complete with white gloves, met the doctors and ushered them to the downstairs's library where we were given the chance to arrange ourselves for the meeting that would follow. We placed four chairs, facing each other in a curved pattern, in front of the fireplace, seated the three doctors and announced that we were ready whenever the President was.

Shortly after that he entered the room. The three doctors rose to greet him and the four of them sat to talk for the next few minutes. The President expressed how glad he was to see the doctors and how grateful he was to them and to all the others at the hospital. The doctors told the president how pleased they were with the way he looked, and that they felt they had just provided the care that anyone would be entitled to. President Reagan asked only one question. He said that he knew he required almost a full charge of other people's blood, and that if he was now back on his own blood, where had all that other blood gone? The doctors explained how the body constantly replenishes its blood, and the pleasantries continued. We had gotten enought good footage to make for a very warm conclusion to the film.

When the film was completed, the television networks got into a bidding war for the rights to the telecast. ABC TV finally won out with a large contribution to the medical scholarship fund at the university. It aired as a "20-20" hour special during the week of the first anniversary of the assassination attempt. The film The Saving of the President went on to win four Emmys and more than 15 international film festival awards. The University still uses the film to teach emergency trauma care. The Secret Service also uses it to help hospitals around the United States understand what they might be in store for, should such a tragedy occur in their backyard.

The Saving of the President was also the first if a film genre. Since that time all kinds of events have been recreated with the actual people who were part of the event. Today many similar styles have become sensationalistic, more tabloid, and less flattering to the genre, but still The Saving of the President represented a turning point in the evolution of cinema treatments.

Looking back at the time spent in research with President and Mrs. Reagan, I am struck by the strength each of them had in different ways, and the wonderful way they complemented each other.

While the President was in the hospital the strongest force in that building was Mrs. Reagan. She was aware of every activity and plan surrounding the president, seldom left his side, and could make life miserable for anyone who was not contributing to President Reagan's chances for recovery and comfort. It occured to me that her role at the hospital was not unlike the role she took on throughout the President's life. She could be vicious toward anyone or anything that she felt threatened her husband. She provided him the opportunity of remaining the good guy and having the freedom to play out his role of the great and charming communicator.

The President by example, on the other hand, provided strength for all the doctors and nurses who attended him. He knew that they were especially nervous because of his position. He went to great lengths toput them at ease, even though he was in a life threatening situtation. Before going under the knife for removal of the bullet next to his heart, and before the anesthesiologist put him to sleep, he raised his head up off the pillow and said, "I hope all you people are Republican's."

Mrs. Reagan, by the way, never saw the completed film. To her it was a nightmare that she wanted to avoid reliving. The President loved it. He was back in the movies again.