18 October 2007

Before They Were Presidents

As Ronald Reagan once said to me...

My track record for meeting sitting Presidents of the United States is not good: I have yet to shake the hand of the man in office. I had some near misses, notably with Bill Clinton in Des Moines, during the Great Flood of 1993. Dan Rather was to interview the President along the lines of sandbaggers, and I was to be at Dan’s elbow, as usual. The White House advance team assured us that we didn’t need press cards or any other identification. But as the President approached, I got separated from Dan — and the Secret Service detail refused to let me get near. “Where’s your press card?” they demanded. I explained that, not five minutes earlier, I’d been told I wouldn’t need one. I had my CBS I.D., but they weren’t interested in that. They had no reason to believe my story, they said, and they weren’t letting me pass. This was frustrating, and it became clear that their standard practice is to push a person to his limits: if he’s going to flip out, better that he do it right away, and as far from the President as possible. I didn’t quite flip out, but I was upset, still shaky days after the confrontation. And I never got to meet Clinton while he was in office.

Before he was in office, however, I did meet him. Clinton was only one of several Presidents I met before they were elected.

The first was Ronald Reagan. In the autumn of 1979, newly arrived on the East Coast, Kevin Pask and I made a day trip to New York City, taking the train from New Haven in what would become, over the next four years, a kind of ritual. We were strolling up Fifth Avenue when we ran into a group of sharply dressed gentlemen emerging from a couple of limousines and entering the Pierre Hotel. Leading the pack was Reagan. “Hello,” we said, and Reagan replied, “Hello, boys.” He didn’t really pause, but Kevin said, “When will you announce whether you’re going to run for President?”

Reagan hesitated and replied, “I’ll be making that announcement in November.” Then he went into the Pierre Hotel where he told everybody else the same thing: the newspapers carried the story the next day. A pity that, as former co-editors of the J.J. Pearce High School Pony Express, Kevin and I no longer had an outlet to publish our exclusive: we had scooped The New York Times, but we had no way to prove it.

In the summer of 1992, I was working for CBS News, and I attended the Republican National Convention in Houston. Bush père had been stingy with his access, ever since the famous “shouting match” interview with Dan, in 1988. (I was in the room at the time: Dan did not shout. I have heard Dan shout. That was not shouting.) He’d granted Dan one further interview, just as he was moving into the White House, in 1989. But since then, nothing. And we were informed that there would be no interview granted during the Convention.

On the President’s part, I doubt there were hard feelings involved. He and Dan had known each other for years, played tennis together in Washington, and up until 1988, they’d enjoyed a perfectly cordial relationship of the sort for which Mr. Bush is famous. (His relationship with the columnist Maureen Dowd exemplifies this.) But this was politics. Bush’s staff — notably Roger Ailes — understood the political value of casting the press, and Dan above all, as an adversary. The policy had worked for Richard Nixon, and it was working for Bush, so they stuck to it. Barbara Bush has a reputation for grudge-carrying, despite her public image of kindliness, so on her part there may have been hard feelings toward Dan. Her son George is said to take after her. And George fils, the campaign informed us, was the only Bush who would speak with Dan on camera.

Mama’s Boy?

It was an extremely rapid interview, in which Bush fils said nothing of interest. He was visibly uncomfortable in interviews (and he still is, I believe), and it was obvious he mistrusted and disliked Dan. Dan was his usual courtly self, and he approached Bush much as he would a small-town neighbor. (“Give our regards to your folks,” he said.) But this didn’t matter much to Bush, who sneered and scowled all the way through. He was, in short, a jerk.

Politics is all about pretending to like people you don’t care for, in order to get something useful from them, but Bush wasn’t playing that game. We’ve since seen that he’s very good at it, however, which leads me to wonder whether his disagreeable behavior with Dan wasn’t designed to appeal to his core audience, the right-wingers who detested Dan. “See? I won’t be taken in by the devil!”

In those days, nobody thought of him as political timber. The family was grooming his brother Jeb for the big jobs; George was his father’s enforcer, strong-arming Congressmen and contributors, on the occasions he got involved at all. When it was his turn to take the White House, he elevated Rather-bashing to an art form, and I’m among many people who wonder whether he and Karl Rove didn’t set up Dan with the National Guard story — much as his father and Roger Ailes set up Dan with the “shouting match,” with comparable benefits. After the “shouting match,” precisely one journalist (Bryant Gumble, on The Today Show the next morning) dared ask Bush père any further questions about Iran-Contra. After “Memogate,” people focused on the veracity of Dan’s documentation, and on John Kerry’s war record, not on the unseemly (and undenied) spectacle of a playboy shirker who now called on America’s sons and daughters to give their lives in a war of his choice.

Bill and Hillary Clinton spoke of “a vast right-wing conspiracy,” but clearly they didn’t consider Dan a part of it, and in general they preferred to sweet-talk the press. Bill had been building a relationship with Dan since he was governor of Arkansas. When he came to visit our office in New York, his candidacy was triumphant, his nomination assured. He greeted our staff with double-fisted handshakes and an intense stare that I felt sure was calculated to convey a deep and abiding empathy — to feel our pain, as it were. I suspect that he’d read that this was a good thing to do, in a book on Winning Friends and Influencing People. But in practice it made each of us uncomfortable.

One of my former colleagues is slight of stature, well under five feet tall, and as Clinton stared at her, she told us later, she was certain he was asking himself, “Is she a midget?” Dan introduced me as “the brains of our operation,” and I was certain Clinton thought, “Gee, it’s Dan Rather’s brain. You don’t see that every day!”

It’s been documented elsewhere in the press and in nonfiction, and in Joe Klein’s Primary Colors, but that afternoon we saw it for ourselves. There’s something artificial, even creepy, about Clinton’s empathy. Though it’s often cited as one of his greatest political gifts, and it led to many of his successes, it’s also weirdly off-putting. You don’t quite know what to make of it, and you’re relieved when he turns his focus on someone else.

See how they run.

Though she may yet be President, Hillary is even less polished than her husband, when it comes to looking as if you give a damn, and her calculations are more obvious. Well, that’s politics.

I met her a couple of times when she was First Lady. For one interview, she was seated on a sofa, and I knelt behind the camera, out of range. Watching her, I realized that Mrs. Clinton has generous thighs, and skirts did not reveal her to best advantage: her panties were white.

Shortly after I made this discovery, it became clear that other people had discovered it, too. An Argentine underwear company started a new ad campaign, including billboards that caught the attention of the North American press. They featured a photo of Mrs. Clinton seated on a sofa and flashing her panties yet again, and the caption was, “Because you never know who’s going to see them.”

Almost immediately, Mrs. Clinton adopted her signature pantsuits. The first Clinton administration was known for airing its dirty laundry in public — think of the little blue dress from the Gap — but I suspect that any new Clinton administration will be far more cautious.

The saddest words by tongue or pen
Are simply these: It might have been

My favorite candidate, however, is now certain not to win the White House: Pat Paulsen died ten years ago. His campaigns for the Presidency were not merely comedy routines, however, and he used to turn up at Democratic Conventions every four years. I never got to meet him, but I’d watch him as he scurried through the halls and wonder how different the world would be if he’d actually won the office. I miss him.