John Zweifel, owner of the Presidents Hall of Fame roadside attraction in Clermont, remembers the relentless teasing he got from Barbara Bush during the “60 or so” times he worked with her on projects to promote knowledge about the White House and presidential history.
“She’s loving, she’s got wits,” said Zweifel, 81, of Orlando. “She teases you all the time — and if you don’t behave, she said she’ll call the commander-in-chief.”
Zweifel recalled the countless hours he spent in the presence of the “sharp-witted” first lady, who died Tuesday at 92, and the natural way she treated average Americans. Bush marveled at the White House in Miniature created by Zweifel, his wife, Jan, and their children that has been exhibited in all 50 states, around the world and at political conventions.
The model, which has been displayed since the 1970s, also has been set up at presidential libraries including the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas. Barbara Bush will be laid to rest Saturday in a secluded area behind the museum.
“How many first ladies do you know that would write personal handwritten letters over and over to us?” Zwiefel asked. “We’re just a couple in Orlando that wanted patriotically to share the White House with everybody.”
The White House in Miniature, a 20-ton replica of the famous residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on a 1-inch-to-1-foot scale, is often accurate down to the title of books kept by the first family. The Zweifels have frequently visited the White House to take measurements and snap photographs to update iconic rooms, such as the Oval Office, as new tenants redecorate. It’s currently on display at the Presidents Hall of Fame off U.S. Highway 27 next to the Citrus Tower north of State Road 50.
The couple’s mission, to promote interest in the White House and presidential history, was a cause the wife of the 41st president put her energy behind.
“We make all those scenes so we can share that experience with everybody, and that’s what moved her so,” Zweifel said. “She thought so much of this display, and it makes a person who created this thing, from nothing, so proud, when the first lady just thinks it’s great.”
In a 1989 handwritten note to Zweifel, she wrote, “My, you have done a wonderful thing for all the country.”
When Zweifel brought the miniature White House — which is 60 feet long and 20 feet wide — to the 1991 opening of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, he said Barbara Bush stood beside four presidents and five other first ladies as they shared memories and gave “tours” of the replica “like a docent.”
The wry and charming personality behind the woman known in the Bush family as “The Enforcer” was never far off, he said.
“She joked that her dog Millie sold more books than she did,” Zweifel said, referring to “Millie’s Book” written by Barbara Bush about a day in the White House from the perspective of the first family’s famous English springer spaniel.
When George H.W. Bush left office in 1993 after one term and her son George W. Bush was sworn in as the leader of the free world in 2001, she still needled Zweifel during his visits to the White House under the younger Bush that if he didn’t behave she’d “call the commander-in-chief, my son.”
Jan Zweifel, also 81, remembered the common touch Bush displayed during a ceremony when the White House in Miniature went on display in Pittsburgh.
“We had a big opening gala that night, with hors d'oeuvres and lovely things, and of course she was in a greeting line, greeting everybody,” Jan Zweifel said. “But every once in a while, she would stop and hike her girdle up.”
None of the first couples the Zweifels have met rivaled the “naturalness” of Barbara Bush and the sweetness of her husband, the couple said.
The Presidents Hall of Fame contains thousands of pieces of presidential memorabilia, as well as wax figures of most of the presidents and mannequins of many first ladies — including Barbara Bush. John Zweifel said he plans to set up a special display in her honor.
And while he takes pains to remain nonpartisan on the issues, he is admittedly biased when it comes to first ladies.
“Other first ladies were a little bit more arms-length away from you,” he said. “She was the only first lady I’ve ever been with that would hug me and hold my hand during photographs.”