31 August 2008

Charles Kuralt and the Age of Miracles

No matter which party wins the Presidential election in the United States in November, I face the prospect of being governed by a person younger than I. Barack Obama was born 18 days after me, Sarah Palin three years later. I will be older than the President or the Vice-President of the United States. That such a thing was possible had occurred to me only as a vague, rather theoretical idea, over which I never lingered. (To make matters worse, it’s being reported that Governor Palin is about to become a grandmother — which means that, technically, I am now more than old enough to be someone’s grandfather.) Yes, some day I’ll be older than the President — and some day, man will visit Mars.

It’s a pity Obama didn’t pick a younger man as running-mate. Then we could line up all the candidates like a remake of The Mod Squad, with McCain as the crusty Captain Greer. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Somehow it’s easier (and surely less frivolous) to dwell on the historic. An African-American man is the nominee of a major party for the Presidency of the United States — that fact alone is awe-inspiring. In my lifetime, which I persist in describing as short, I have seen my native country go from segregation to a nomination. I may yet live to see an administration. I honestly didn’t believe it would happen.

If the Republicans win, a woman will be Vice-President of the United States. She’s now primed automatically to be a leading candidate for the Presidency in 2012. If a President McCain were to step down because of health or to die in office (realistic possibilities), she’d be the incumbent. This is an age of miracles — and it makes me think about Charles Kuralt.

I didn’t know Charles Kuralt, and he surely did not know me, though we worked in the same building and sometimes on the same broadcasts. I recall that during election-night coverage in 1992, Kuralt observed on the air that he had voted for the first time for a presidential candidate younger than himself. So far as I know, no interest groups protested this expression of political bias on his part — obviously he meant he’d voted for Clinton. If Dan Rather or Connie Chung had said such a thing, you’d still be hearing the ruckus. Kuralt’s popularity was titanium and Teflon. He could run over your dog when he was On the Road, and you’d still watch his shows and happily buy his books.*

That night in 1992, Kuralt seemed immensely old, and it was difficult to imagine anybody older. He was in truth younger than he looked, and hadn’t yet turned 60, but I was a kid of 31 and careless. Kuralt didn’t say how he was coping with the reality of being older than the President, and I wish he had, because that might have helped me now. Sometimes his words stick with me.

Indeed, as I write this, I begin to wonder whether it wasn’t Mike Wallace who spoke. Such is the force of Kuralt, though, that I doggedly give him the credit. (Besides, he’s dead and can’t sue me.)

To cite another example of that force, I recall Kuralt’s broadcasting from the Soviet Union, either for the Seven Days in May show or for Vladimir Horowitz’s return to Moscow — I didn’t go on either trip, but I watched on TV like everybody else. Kuralt spoke of the powerful emotional reaction to hearing one’s national anthem played in a foreign country, and years later I understood what he meant when I passed through a Parisian Métro station and heard a band playing “New York, New York.” It’s not a song I love, but it’s the anthem of that city, and you never hear it in this one. I was caught off-guard. I stood there only a moment to listen, then hurried up to the street, overpowered by patriotism, homesickness, and love. And I remembered Charles Kuralt in Moscow.

He was a masterful writer for his own voice; when I read his books, I find the prose flat and disappointing, the thoughts banal, until I remind myself what he sounded like. Then the rhythms emerge, and I pay closer attention. Confessing that he was about to be older than the President was probably not a statement Kuralt wrote out in advance, but I hear his voice in those words, and I hear him now.

*NOTE: You can almost hear him narrating the story, can’t you? “We went to see a man about a dog the other day. We ran over it, we told him. He was a good sport about it, though. Said he never much cared for animals. Invited us onto the porch for hot coffee and homemade biscuits. His wife collects matchbook covers. She’s got about a thousand of them. Then it was time to go.”