‘Wash It, Wax It’
The President and the Tow Truck Driver
Clarence Baugh has cleared a path for all presidents through New York since George H.W. Bush. But until this week, he’d never met one.
The New York cops call him the tow truck driver to the presidents.
“In a world in turmoil where the president of the United States is in search of a course of action, one man clears the path ahead, and if there’s anything in the way, he moves it,” an NYPD sergeant said this week. “His name is Clarence Baugh.”
Baugh is the longtime driver of the tow truck in the “sweep team” that precedes all presidential motorcades through New York, ever ready to remove any and all obstructing vehicles.
He is also so manifestly and forthrightly pleasant as to seem like good nature personified, unsoured by his previous assignments hauling away the vehicles of resentful scofflaws in Brooklyn and Queens.
“He’s a guy, you’d almost want to thank him if he towed your car,” an NYPD commander marveled.
And 49-year-old Baugh’s unfailingly sunny disposition in this troubled cosmos no doubt encouraged the cops to set things right when they discovered a startling fact.
“He has served every president since the first Bush, and he never met one,” another police commander said.
Thanks to the cops, that was about to change when President Obama helicoptered into Lower Manhattan from JFK Airport on Monday morning to begin a four-day visit to New York.
The presidential motorcade was once again preceded by the sweep team, a marked highway unit car followed by an NYPD intelligence division command car and a bomb squad vehicle, and then the new white tow truck that recently replaced the old one that Baugh always kept sparkling, as if it were new.
“Make sure it’s clear,” Baugh said of his mission.
The sweep team and the motorcade soon arrived at the United Nations, where Obama delivered an address about climate change. The next stop was the Sheraton Hotel.
From there, Obama headed for the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The sweep team was leading the way when it came upon an unattended red car parked along the route.
The car proved to be an NYPD vehicle, but it still had to be moved. Baugh hopped out and towed it a block away with practiced speed and ease. He had rejoined the team outside the Waldorf at 3 p.m. when he got a call on his cellphone from the Secret Service. He afterward made a happy announcement to an NPYD lieutenant.
“I said, ‘The Secret Service called me. I’m going to meet the president,’” Baugh would recall. “He said, ‘You’re going to meet the president?’ I said, ‘Yes.’”
At 3:30 p.m., the Secret Service called again. A friendly agent escorted Baugh up into the hotel. Baugh was told that he should introduce himself when Obama entered. But he should not hand anything directly to the president and should instead present it to an aide.
Baugh had brought nothing but his remarkable good will, and it was in full gleam for all to see when the president entered. Baugh noted that Obama appeared to be in very good spirits.
“He seemed to be a happy person when he came out,” Baugh later said.
Perhaps Obama was having a good day, despite the campaign against ISIS and the accompanying mess in Iraq and Syria, as well as the continuing troubles in Ukraine and the Ebola epidemic turning endemic in Africa, not to mention various crises and falling polls at home.
Whatever the explanation for his good cheer, Obama no doubt was experiencing the brightening effect that Baugh has on seemingly everybody he meets, from disgruntled scofflaws to hero cops and apparently even the most powerful man on Earth.
“When people see me, they see my personality and right away they say, ‘You’re a nice guy,’” Baugh later allowed when asked about his encounters with others.
Obama seemed to Baugh to be a very nice guy himself.
“He said, ‘Oh, I see all your medals,’” Baugh recalled.
Obama was apparently making reference to the unit pins that Baugh wears in his uniform shirt and to the ribbons from several decorations above his badge, these including a black one bearing the letters “WTC.”
That stands for World Trade Center. Baugh responded after the first attack there in 1993 and helped tow wrecked cars from the bombed garage. But the WTC ribbon is from the attack on 9/11, which saw Baugh race to the scene after the first plane struck.
He was helping to evacuate people from the stricken North Tower when the second plane hit. He got back in his truck and had just started it up when the South Tower came down, the roiling cloud of debris pursuing him as he drove away. He circled around to the North Tower and saw what he at first took to be clothing tossed from the flaming heights.
He then realized it was not clothing but people jumping. He could do nothing but watch in horror until that tower also came down.
More recently, Baugh headed out in his truck to do what he could when Hurricane Sandy struck the city. And he has remained perpetually ready for whatever else might arise, keeping his truck as sparkling as his persona.
“Wash it, wax it,” Baugh says of the truck. “You never know what it’s going to have to do.”
And now, after 28 1/2 years of serving his city as a tow truck driver and two decades of leading the way for presidential motorcades, he stood before his president.
A White House photographer recorded the moment when Obama shook Baugh’s hand with his right and set his left lightly on the tow truck driver’s shoulder.
Such photos generally blur into the sameness of routine, but this particular one is unexpectedly stirring. That is perhaps because Obama seems to be not just looking at Baugh, but really seeing him.
And this makes you see what the president is seeing; the smiling, bright-eyed visage of a profoundly decent working soul who has remained a very good guy while doing his duty to the very best of his ability.
If Obama finds some of his political adversaries difficult, he might consider the characters Baugh encountered in his days of towing cars in deep Brooklyn.
“You have the ones who are who they are,” Baugh allowed this week.
After meeting Obama, Baugh returned to his freshly washed and waxed truck. He soon was once more leading the way with the sweep team as the presidential motorcade set off to pay a brief visit to an apartment building on the Upper West Side.
“We have departure,” a voice announced over the police radio not long afterward.
The sweep team was again in motion. Baugh drove his truck down the middle of a cleared stretch of Central Park West, uniformed cops keeping onlookers behind police barricades on either side, the setting sun shining golden on the new Freedom Tower far downtown, where the Twin Towers once stood.
Baugh then turned left, following the set route through Central Park and back to the Waldorf. He stood by his truck wearing his badge, No. 1993.
“That’s a good year, too,” he said. “My son was born in 1993.”
He also has a daughter who is 16. The principles he has taught them include one that has guided him through his years on the job.
“Be polite, be respectful,” he said. “Even though you’re going to have people who are rude to you, always stay polite, stay respectful.”
When he got home Tuesday night, he had some news.
“I told them, ‘I got a chance to meet the president. I had a good day,’” he later reported to The Daily Beast.
On Wednesday morning, Baugh and the sweep team were out there again as the motorcade took Obama to the United Nations for his speech on the need to take on the very worst of the bad guys.
“Everything was clear,” Baugh reported.