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Keeping company with presidents

A New Tampa retiree tells stories of his experiences with every administration from Eisenhower to Clinton.

By SUSAN THURSTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


TAMPA -- The Eisenhowers loved bridge and Lyndon B. Johnson loved beagles. Rosalynn Carter wanted to improve mental health care. John F. Kennedy wanted to rejuvenate the White House.

These are some tidbits Ronald Hurst learned first-hand from his business dealings with every White House administration from Dwight Eisenhower to Bill Clinton.

The 70-year-old Tampa Palms resident has presidential memories that span four decades and nine administrations.

He dabbled in politics but learned the most about the White House as a lobbyist for a heavy equipment manufacturer and, later, for the medical industry.

Each visit left its mark on the former newsman and politician from Illinois. Today, Hurst shares those experiences and observations with groups across Hillsborough County.

Hurst began his Oval Office odyssey in the Eisenhower years, when he was working for Caterpillar Inc. in Peoria, Ill. The president wanted support for his new interstate road system and brought together companies that stood to benefit from its construction to help promote it.

Hurst wasn't on the original guest list but filled in as a substitute because he had military security clearance. He joined the Navy after graduating from Marquette University in Milwaukee.

He recalls Eisenhower's no-nonsense approach to getting things done: Bring in the right people and replace them if they fail.

John F. Kennedy's arrival in 1961 brought a new enthusiasm to the White House, said Hurst, a Republican who tries to make his speeches nonpartisan. Kennedy felt the staff was too old and immediately hired young people to help further his plans.

His assassination in 1963 slowed the tempo in the nation's capital. Incoming President Lyndon B. Johnson said it felt like a loaded truck had been dumped on his head. A large man, Johnson used intimidation to gain support, Hurst said.

Richard Nixon was elected in 1968, a year that was a low point in Hurst's life. He and his wife, Jean, lost two of their six children: a 12-year-old daughter from leukemia and a 4-year-old son from drowning in a swimming accident.

Hurst remembers Nixon as a paranoid person who was uncomfortable to be around.

Of the nine presidents he saw, Gerald Ford was the most underestimated, Hurst said. Although he was mired in the aftermath of Watergate and Nixon's resignation, Ford appointed good people.

Hurst was a frequent White House visitor during the Jimmy Carter administration. He had about a dozen meetings with Rosalynn Carter and several others about insurance coverage for mental health care.

As Kennedy had two decades earlier, Ronald Reagan lifted the nation's spirits and showed great strength, despite his older age. He surrounded himself with talented, loyal supporters, led by his wife.

Reagan's successor, George Bush, was a kind man, but probably too gentle to be president, Hurst said.

Hurst's last presidential invitation came from the Clinton administration. At the time, he was working with Mid-Atlantic Medical Services, running a network of managed health care companies. He shakes his head when speaking of Clinton.

With George W. Bush at the helm, Hurst isn't sure what will become of his streak. He's mostly retired now, but remains active as a marketing consultant for a health care software company.

He expects his wife of 46 years might object to his tackling another project. She prefers he make memories at their house, not the White House. As for him, if the need for his skills arises, "I'm willing to consider it."

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