PORTLAND, Ore. — A Portland woman who got a wrist watch from President George H.W. Bush said she remembers the moment clearly and was not surprised.
“I don’t know that I was surprised because that was the goal. That’s why I was saying it, right? I was like, 'Give it to me!'" Jae Tai said.
It happened in May of 1990. President Bush had visited the Rose City and was about to leave the Portland Air Guard Base.
Before he did, he stopped to talk with 125 kids from the group Self Enhancement Inc. The organization helps kids in North and Northeast Portland.
Jae Tai was one of those kids. She was 11 years old.
“I think I thought he was a kind man,” she said.
She also admitted she was always working some sort of angle in those days.
“I was just telling everybody who walked by, 'Hey I like your watch.' And his secret service guys, they just ignored me’” she said.
But the president did not. He paused, took it off its wrist and handed it over.
That little girl is now 39 years old. She’s living in Portland again after chasing a career of writing and acting across the country.
She remembers not being intimidated or surprised that she got the president’s watch.
“I was surprised it was a Timex and not worth anything. That’s what I was surprised about,” she said, laughing.
She now works for Resolutions NW and helps with conflict resolution and trainings to help people identify structural racism.
She is a bit irreverent about something many would consider a keepsake.
“I often joke that was the first piece of jewelry I got off a man. It wasn’t the last. And it wasn’t the nicest, let’s be honest,” she joked.
If you hoped for a Disney-style ending to the story of the watch, you will not find it here. Yes, she grew up confident and bold. No, it did not have anything to do with the interaction with President Bush.
“I think that my mother and my father really made me think that I can do or be anything. It didn’t have anything to do with the watch. I think it spoke to my ability to speak so candidly with him and not be intimidated by him,” she said.
Jae tried to sell the watch once, when she lived in New York and needed money for a short movie she wanted to make. No one was willing to pay anything near what she wanted. So she kept it.
As she grew older, she said there were times she tried to hide the story and any connection to the Bush family.
“There was awhile when I was kind of embarrassed to bring up that story. As a matter of fact, when you guys came here today I’m like, 'Do I want to do this? Does this speak to who I am as a human being today?' Like, the Bushes...I think any president we've had is way better than what we're dealing with now. So I’m less embarrassed,” said Lai.
So, yes, she still has it today.
“People ask me that a lot. Yeah, somewhere. But I do have it," she said.