Three generations of a local family can now say they have seen the inside of perhaps the most hallowed office in American politics: the Oval Office.
And without a healthy dose of serendipity, it might have never happened.
Professional portrait artist David Schuman, 82, had been trying for years to meet with President George W. Bush to present him with two portraits — one of the President, and one of the President’s daughters, Jenna and Barbara — but until this summer he had been without success.
Schuman, who has painted portraits for many notable St. Louisans, including Jewish Federation President Heschel Raskas and Anheuser-Busch President and CEO Patrick Stokes, traveled to the White House in 1994 to present his work to then-President Bill Clinton.
One of the portraits hung in Clinton’s bedroom during his presidency and now hangs in the Clinton presidential library in Little Rock, Ark.
After Bush was elected, Schuman hoped he would be able to make a similar trip once again to the White House.
Schuman’s son, Dr. Ethan Schuman, 51, a dentist who lives in University City, wrote letters to Bush, relating his father’s wish to present him with the portraits, but for years, he never received an invitation.
Ethan didn’t give up hope, however, and a chance meeting this summer gave him the opportunity to bring his father back to the White House.
As a cantor at the family’s synagogue, Nusach Hari B’nai Zion, Ethan was asked to sing at a rally for Israel held on July 18 by the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Federation.
The decision to attend the rally proved fortuitous for the Schumans, as Ethan happened to meet an aide to then-Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., who proved to be a key ally in steering the family through the proper channels to get in touch with the White House.
The aide told Ethan to send a letter to the White House once again, and this time, he should email a copy to Talent’s office, so the senator could request the President’s staff look out for the letter.
“Two weeks later,” Ethan recalled, “I get a call from Sen. Talent, saying, ‘Dr. Schuman, I have great news. You and your father have an appointment to meet the president.'”
On Oct. 18, David Schuman, his wife Zelda, his two sons Ethan and Allan (who flew in from Jerusalem for the occasion), and Ethan’s daughter Loni arrived at the White House.
For Ethan, who had accompanied his father on the previous visit when Clinton was in office, visiting the White House was nothing new, but he was in for a surprise.
“We started walking past the East Wing, the Diplomatic Room where we had been last time and the China Room, and we kept walking past,” Ethan said. “I asked the aide where we were going and she said, ‘the West Wing.'”
Once they came to the West Wing’s Roosevelt Room, Ethan asked the aide where they were in relation to the Oval Office.
“She said, ‘You see that door? The other side of that door is the Oval Office.'”
After a while, an aide opened the door and welcomed the family in. “We walked through and we just heard that voice, saying ‘Come on in folks. Don’t be nervous, we’re happy to have you,'” Ethan said.
In the Oval Office the two sons placed the portraits on a pair of easels and David introduced the family to the president.
“We were wearing our yarmulkes and my father said, ‘Obviously we’re Orthodox Jews and we have a blessing from the Talmud we recite when we lay eyes upon a world leader such as yourself, and with the president’s permission, I would like to take the opportunity to recite that blessing because I’ve never done it in my life and I’ll probably never do it again,'” Ethan recalled.
After the blessing, the family discussed Middle East politics with the President.
“I thanked him for his unwavering support for the State of Israel and he said to me flat-out, ‘It’s just the right thing to do,'” Ethan said.
Ethan’s father, David, told the president that he had campaigned for his re-election and had told others to vote for him.
After talking with the adults, Bush turned to chat with the youngest Schuman.
Loni, 14, thanked President Bush for letting the family come and handed him a letter on behalf of her school, the H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy.
“After I gave him the letter, he read it and said he really liked it and then he gave me a hug,” she said.
“It was really cool,” Loni said. “It felt important to be there, in the Oval Office, and I was surprised the president actually talked to me. I figured he’d just talk to my dad and my grandpa.”
After about 25 minutes, the president was walking the family out of the office, when he turned around and walked back to his desk.
“The president said, ‘Oh Loni, Loni, come here. I almost forgot,'” Ethan recalled.
“Then he handed her a little packet from his desk and said, ‘Loni, this is a bookmark from the president’s desk in the Oval Office. You hold on to this. It’ll become more important to you each passing year,’ and she really cherishes that gift,” Ethan said.
The family left the White House with an insider’s perspective on the commander-in-chief.
“On TV, we see a persona, but when you see him on a personal level and converse with him, you realize the humanity of the man and his straightforwardness,” Ethan said.
Loni said Bush was taller than she expected, and she was surprised at how normal he seemed.
“He didn’t act like he knew that he was this famous guy,” Loni said. “He was so down-to-earth. He was just really nice to my family, and seemed like a cool guy.”
“Now,” Loni said, “whenever I see him on TV, I think, ‘Wow. I’ve met that guy.'”