He entered the ballroom and walked briskly to his seat. The crowd applauded as strobe lights flashed and photographers lifted their cameras that made whirring and clicking sounds. He smiled and sat down, an arm’s length away, and I thought maybe, just maybe, I am sitting next to the next president of the United States.
Now, I don’t often get this close to people such as Senator Bob Dole. I’ve been close enough to Michael Jordan to smell his breath, close enough to Thomas Hearns that his blood splashed on my notebook. But sports is one thing, and politics quite another. No athlete I’d ever interviewed might one day decide America should drop a bomb, right?
I had gone to Washington, D.C., at the invitation of newspaper editors convening there. Dole had come to address the group. It was mere coincidence we were seated near each other, and as Dole glanced at me quickly — then, not recognizing me as anyone important, said “Howya doin’?” and glanced away — I think this was obvious to him as well.
Still I found myself studying him. His cuff links shone at the end of his sleeve. His thinning hair was neatly coiffed and sprayed in place, to make it seem as thick and youthful as possible. He was nicely tanned, sharply dressed, and only the wrinkled, flabby skin of his neck, oozing over his shirt collar, suggested his full age, which is 72.
I studied him as he refused the glass of strawberries and chocolate offered by the waiter. I studied him as he sipped his coffee and his eyes darted around the room. I studied him as he nodded and laughed at all the right moments during the introduction.
But in all this observation, I never found what I was looking for: some kind of glow, the a bright light of a special man. Something presidential.
Maybe I was foolish to look.
Same old song and dance
This much I can tell you: I gave up all hope once Dole started talking. After the standard speaking engagement openings — “I’m honored to be here (look sincere) . . . my wife is home cleaning the store room, and right now, I wish I could be there with her (laugh, wait for laughter of crowd)” — after this, he launched into typical political ammunition, aimed squarely at his rival, President Bill Clinton.
Dole attacked Clinton’s judicial appointments, something he hoped would make the 6 o’clock news. It had nothing to do with our group, nothing to do with our audience — we were just a backdrop, apparently — it was calculated and one-sided and dull and uninspiring.
At one point, I saw Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post lift his legs, kick them back and forth and then cross and uncross them. This, presumably, was to keep them from falling asleep, along with the rest of him.
Dole took some questions, but answered what he wanted and dodged the rest. He spoke in clipped, monotone sentences, saying things most any candidate would say. He seemed wholly and completely motivated by what this hour could do to advance his campaign. And while I am not here to evaluate his policies– or even to say if he’d be an effective president — I can tell you, he left me cold.
As he made his exit, he stopped to shake hands.
In the end, it’s relative
There’s a scene in the movie “American Graffiti,” set in 1962, in which the character played by Richard Dreyfuss admits his biggest dream is “to one day shake the hand of President Kennedy.” And Dreyfuss played the intelligent one!
Does anyone feel that way anymore? Can you imagine an 18 year-old today saying his biggest dream is to shake Bill Clinton’s hand?
I can’t. But then, I’m getting older, and maybe too cynical. As part of the convention, I was invited Thursday night to a large reception at Vice President Al Gore’s residence. I’m sure it was splendid, and I’m sure I would have gotten my five seconds of meet-and-greet before the vice president was moved on to someone else.
I didn’t go. Instead, I landed in Washington and met my young cousin Matthew. When he was a little boy, he used to come to my apartment and squeeze with me into a La-Z-Boy, and we would flop up and down and laugh at the ride. I watched him grow tall, bigger than me, and now, here he was, about to graduate from college. We went to a Mexican restaurant, and he talked about girls, and we laughed again over fajitas and chips.
I would not have missed that for the world or Al Gore. Maybe government isn’t what it used to be. Maybe our leaders aren’t. Maybe it’s just me. But the awe of the White House has been dimmed by all the charlatans and shenanigans that have filled it the last few decades, and by the cads so desperate to get inside.
I did get my moment with Dole, the man who might be president. He looked blankly in my eyes, pushed up a smile, mumbled something, and moved on. How did it feel? It felt like a handshake.