John Salazar tells a funny story about one very awkward lunch at the White House


Former U.S. Rep. John Salazar grew up in a house in the San Luis Valley with no running water and no electricity, so it’s no surprise that he was something of a fish out of water on his first visit to the White House.

Now, Colorado’s commissioner of agriculture, Salazar spoke last week to the Colorado Water Congress. He didn’t actually discuss water or agriculture policy very much, instead telling a funny a story on himself.

“They say you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t really take the country out of the boy,” Salazar said before launching into his tale of social uncertainty. “When I was first elected to Congress, President Bush invited all the freshman members out to the White House for lunch. So, you know, I thought to myself, what is a little farm boy like you doing out in Washington?

“They dropped us off the bus at the White House and I walked in and looked around at all the lavish furnishings. They invited us into the dining room where we were going to have lunch and I looked at the place settings–there were three or four spoons and four or five forks. It was a huge place setting. I told myself, this is incredible but you know what? I’m not going to let these people show me up. After all, I was a proud graduate of the Colorado Agricultural Leadership Program. I thought I was a pretty fair judge of etiquette and things like that.

“At the Ag Leadership Program, they taught us that we were supposed to use utensils from the outside to the inside, so I thought, well this is great. Just about then I saw Vice President Cheney walk in–this was just after he had his heart attack–and I went over to talk to him, and I said ‘Mr Vice President, how are you?’ And he said, ‘Oh I’m doing much better. Who are you?’ I said, ‘Mr Vice President, I’m the guy you campaigned against out in Grand Junction.’ He said, ‘Oh that’s right.’ So we had that conversation and it was the first time I’d really been up close to Vice President Cheney.

“Then they said we had to take our seats. They told me ‘Congressman Salazar your place is over there at table three.’ So I go over there, look and find my nameplate and I sit down. I introduce myself to the person to the right, turn to the person on my left and, well, I did a double take. It was President Bush sitting next to me. I’d never seen him up close.

“’Mr Presdent, it’s an honor to be here with you’–and I look down and he is wearing his black cowboy boots. We start comparing ranches, all this stuff, and I tell myself I’m not going to let the president outdo me by gosh. Then he asked me what kind of cattle we run and I tell him we run run of the mill, have a mixture of limousin and black angus. And I ask him what kind of cattle he runs, and he says, ‘oh we run pure bred angus.’ ‘Wow, that’s exciting,’ I tell him. I asked if he actually raised seed stock and he didn’t answer right away. ‘Well, Mr President, what traits do these black angus have?’ Then he turns to me and he says, ‘well they aren’t really my cattle–they belong to the guy who runs my ranch.’

“They started serving us you know, this eight-course lunch. I’ve been around you folks and we have good wonderful lunches, you know, two or three courses. I was feeling pretty darn good. They got around to salads and all that stuff and then they served dessert. They bring around these little melon balls of ice cream, you know, I guess some people call it sorbet. Anyway, I was doing real good up to that point. I found that little spoon I was supposed to use, I was excited. I was in heaven, you know.

“I looked around and I had used all my utensils, seven courses all done, and I thought I had done pretty good. That Agricultural Leadership Program had taught me pretty well how to function in Washington DC. Then lo and behold, when they took that plate away and the waiters came back around, they brought out these wonderful beautiful bowls of soup with a little mint sprig in it.

“Then I started panicking. I didn’t have any spoons left, and I looked under the table and there was nothing, and I looked over at the president and he was just sitting there in front of his soup, and I looked across the table and one of my Republican colleagues from Texas was just sitting there kind of staring at it. And I thought to myself, surely you’re in the White House, you don’t just take that soup and drink it. And I looked around and no one else was doing anything. Then just at that moment I looked (as the congressman from Texas) took that bowl in both hands and lifted it to his mouth and I thought well, that’s what we’re going to do and then I saw across the table the president’s chief of staff, thanks to God I actually saw him dipping his fingers in that bowl, and I started doing that myself, and I thought, wow, saved by the bell.”

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.

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