In the Presence of Presidential Candidates

Following a cab down 7th Avenue. 8:30 PM.

In the Presence of Presidential Candidates. Reflections on having been in the presence of the men (and woman) who have run (and sometimes won) for the Presidency.

I’ve known many people who in their lifetimes have had close relationships with Presidents both political and social from Herbert Hoover on. Senator Hillary Clinton’s running for President reminded me of my own history of physical proximity to Presidential candidates over the years, although I personally have never known a sitting President. Nevertheless, like a lot of Americans I remain at least slightly in awe of the Man in the Office whoever he (or she) may be.

JFK with Eleanor Roosevelt, 1960.

The first time I ever saw a Presidential candidate up close was John F. Kennedy (a foot away) in Lewiston, Maine in October 1960. He was making a quick tour of New England (on his campaign plane, “The Caroline” – I think it was a DC-3  -- which belonged to his father. A bunch of us had driven down from Waterville (and Colby College) to catch a view. He was originally expected about 9 pm that night but arrived well after midnight. The long delay of his arrival only increased the excitement and anticipation.

I was thisfar from him as he passed through the crowd clamoring to get a look at him. He looked repulsed and terrified by the almost crushing mass of humanity as it was cleared so that he could make his way to the platform for a speech.. That was my first glimpse into the rigors of Presidential campaigning for any candidate.

I never saw Richard Nixon, in or out of office. I’ve known quite a few people who knew him at different times, before and after he occupied the White House.

Although he left office in disgrace, he is recalled by nearly everyone (both Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative) with a certain amount of affection, and as a paradoxically sympathetic character. I can understand that having witnessed (along with hundreds of millions) his farewell words, especially when he mentioned his mother Hannah Nixon. “No one ever wrote a book about my mother…” he said, his eyes welling up.  (Someone had just published a biography of Rose Kennedy.) “My mother was a saint,” he stated in bittersweet memory, tears brimming, hands grasping tightly the sides of the podium. I thought to myself, there’s the story -- just like many of the rest of us. Mother. Many of us watching cried right along with Mr. Nixon.

President Nixon giving a televised address explaining release of edited transcripts of the tapes on April 29, 1974.

I saw George McGovern once, in 1972 in North Stamford, Connecticut, also in October, in front of the house of a wealthy fragrance executive named Richard Salomon. Candidate McGovern was appearing at a small private fundraiser. It was a rainy early evening with an ominous and damp autumn chill in the air.

The senator looked worn almost ragged with fatigue, shoulders hunched, almost trudging along the stone walk, his hands deep in his trenchcoat pockets. His defeat was already a foregone conclusion, and I wondered how the man bore the palpable burden. I admired him, as I do now.  There was something about him that reminded me of my own father, who didn’t like him and voted for Nixon.

I never saw Jimmy Carter until the mid-1990s when his Presidency had long since past. It was at a dinner party at Alice Mason’s apartment here in New York. Mrs. Mason was famous (especially among the famous) for her dinner parties with guestlists jammed with the rich, the powerful and the media-influential. 

Although he had been president, with a famous name and famous voice, his demeanor was modest, although  confident and dignified. He spoke to you very directly and kindly. That night at Mrs. Mason’s, during the dinner (there were sixty present), he talked about all the small wars that were going on (more than 70) all over the world, wars we never hear about or read about. And most horrifying was the fact that the majority of the victims were women and children. And even worse was the fact that children were being armed for warfare. Mr. Carter’s cause was to come to the aid of its victims, to find solutions to end these wars.

I’ve met Mr. Carter and his wife Rosalyn a couple of times since then, the last time being a reception at Sherrell and Muffie Potter Aston’s several years ago where I had the chance to engage him briefly in conversation. It is quite a trip to talk to a man who has been President. I am very familiar with the maligning of Jimmy Carter especially those who referred to him as “stupid.” He is not stupid.

Ronald Reagan

Reflections on Candidate Reagan. In December 1979, having recently moved to Los Angeles, I was invited last minute, as an extra man to a large dinner dance given upstairs at the Bistro restaurant in Beverly Hills by a woman named Lorena Nidorf. Mrs. Nidorf, who was the second wife and widow of Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, gave this dinner every year and her guestlist included many famous Hollywood stars and luminaries including several screen legends like Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Fred McMurray, Alice Faye, Jack Lemmon and Felicia Farr, Frank and Barbara Sinatra, Natalie Wood and RJ Wagner, Tony Martin and Cyd Charisse, Billy and Audrey Wilder, Ardie and Harriet Deutsch, Janet and Freddie DeCordova, Jimmy and Gloria Stewart, as well as many prominent Los Angelenos who were about to become more prominent with the election to the Presidency of their man: Ronald Reagan.

The evening was really glamorous and very impressive, although I had the distinction of being a complete stranger, knowing many of the famous faces but only from having seen them on the screen when I was a kid. So what was interesting was also somewhat awkward in feeling.

I noticed, however, that as guests arrived they made a beeline not for the hostess who was a very attractive and charming woman, but for a well-tanned, white-haired dowager wearing a pastel chiffon long dress and looking (in stature) like a Laguna Beach version of Eleanor Roosevelt. I recognized her: Dorothy Chandler, the doyenne of the Los Angeles Times which was then run by her son Otis, and before that by her husband Harry Chandler. Her name was on the concert hall of the Music Center that  she was credited with personally having raised the money to build.

And so, because I felt like a sore thumb sticking out in this glittery crowd, I planted myself, right next to, but with my back to, Mrs. Chandler. That way I could hear whatever homage was being paid by her stellar peers.

In short time, Ronald and Nancy Reagan arrived to say hello. Mr. Reagan had been one of my favorite movie stars when I was a kid, and so it was a treat to see that still familiar face. His cheeks were rosy, his full head of hair the color it might have been at 21 but not at 51 (without assistance that is), and a not quite imperceptible bobbing of his head as he spoke, belying his youthful face. Mrs. Reagan was a diminutive woman, friendly but quiet when her husband spoke.

There had been an editorial in the LA Times earlier that week that he was probably going to announce his candidacy for the Presidency. With that in mind, and considering it was the closest I was ever going to get to a Presidential candidate that year, I moved (backed) in closer to Mrs. Chandler’s back, so that I could eavesdrop.

It so happened that that day in the Times, there was an editorial disapproving of Jimmy Carter’s unwillingness to let the very ill (and country-less) Shah of Iran enter the United States for medical treatment because of the Hostage Situation.

Jimmy Carter and DPC

“I agree with your editorial,”Mr. Reagan told Mrs. Chandler who graciously noted his opinion. However, their ensuing conversation was remarkably, even alarmingly ordinary, like two straphangers passing opinions on a Broadway bus.  I remember thinking that Mr Reagan’s chances of winning the election of 1980 were non-existent. Obviously, I was not equipped with the perspicacity to know an important lesson, embodied by Ronald Reagan, awaited us.

In retrospect, this man from Hollywood was perfect casting for the role. And he demonstrated that right into the final years of his second term when his condition had already begun to deteriorate noticeably.  Although he had never achieved the movie stardom of his friend Jimmy Stewart, or Mr. Grant, or Mr. Astaire – something he was deeply competitive and ambitious enough to seek – he was every bit as professional as they. And, it turned out, maybe even more than any of those whose stardom he never quite achieved in Hollywood.

A thorough professional, first as an actor and then as a politician, Ronald Reagan turned out to be the man to define an era of 20th century America, as his hero, Franklin Roosevelt had done in Reagan’s youth. He's a “gent” in movie terms, always reminding me of my “rich” uncle who was a contemporary of Reagan’s. Resolutely charming and fair (his version). I liked my uncle and admired his business success.

Bill Clinton, 2007

Nancy and Ronald Reagan, unlike many who came before and after to occupy the White House maintained the same friendships before, during and after their occupancy. It was a “special” group, of course, many of whom were the original backers of candidate Reagan when he began his political career.

They treated their man with respect but they also told him what they thought. The differences were minor, however. And in their presence he remained the congenial friend who shared their sentiments and shared his national glory.

Shortly after he returned to private life there was a dinner given for the Reagans by their longtime California friends, welcoming them home. At the table, one of the guests asked how he wished to be addressed since “Mr. President” is the formal title. Mr. Reagan answered by explaining that since they were all friends at that table, he wished to be addressed as one of them, with the name he always had: Ronnie.

I saw Bill Clinton up close less than a month before the election of 1992, when I was a guest of the late Dorothy Hirshon at a big fundraiser here in New York. Mrs. Hirshon, who had known, and been to the White House of every President since FDR, she had a ringside table on this night, right next to the podium so we could get a good look.

Mr. Clinton was appearing that night with his running mate, Al Gore. It was my first time looking at a Presidential candidate who was younger than I. This defines change in perception, political or otherwise.

He was wearing a grey suit, blue buttondown and red tie – a young banker/businessman’s sartorial image, and well-shined brown Bass Weejuns.  He was a good looking man, tall, slightly girthy, flushed cheeks, bright blue eyes and large but graceful, long, sensitive hands. And there was just a hint of a swagger to his gait as he made his way to the podium, reminding me of those guys on the varsity in college who strolled to class in muscle bound baby steps exuding self-confidence.

The governor from Arkansas leaned in casually as he spoke, resting his elbows on the podium, using his hands frequently and gracefully. His talk was intimate in style but substantive with a lot of facts, information and ideas. He was not a dynamic, inspiring speaker like his idol Mr. Kennedy, but he was clear and articulate like a very good (and cool) professor.

I never got to shake his hand or have a word with him and I never saw him again in all the eight years he was in office. I did have the opportunity to shake his hand at a private dinner given for him three years ago here in New York. There he was besieged by admirers who were as exuberant as a crowd of movie fans, a situation which he clearly was very familiar with and rather enjoyed. Although he seemed very outgoing (just from watching him in this private situation), I never had the opportunity to have a word with him nor did he seem (“feel”) accessible to these eyes. His wife, who was not present that night, was already the junior senator from New York and I had met her more than once. 

Which brings me to the Presidential candidate I have met more than any others in my lifetime, and with whom I’ve had the privilege of brief but revealing conversations, Hillary Clinton.

I met her when she was first running for the Senate also at the home of Alice Mason, at a fundraising reception with 20 or 30 people. On meeting, Mrs. Clinton is a very personable woman, and very accessible (for a high profile politician). She makes an effort to be friendly and responsive to everyone around her. If it is forced, it’s as good as Ronald Reagan. It is a graciousness, albeit serious in approach. I have heard from sources who consider themselves reliable that the polish is not always on that apple, but I have never seen an inkling of that.

She always reminds me of those girls I knew in grade school who were the “smart ones” -- the ones who always had their hand up and waving first when the teacher asked a question having to do with last night’s homework. Straight “A’s,” straightshooting effortlessly brainy. Almost too perfect to begin with, they can be annoying and often develop an accumulating sense of moral rightness that runs the serious risk of being a know-it-all.

Since that first meeting, however, when I was impressed (although not blown away) by her brittle but girlish charm, I have seen her a number of times -- at cocktail receptions, fund-raisers, charity benefits and even at Michael’s restaurant. She has also seen me enough so that she recognizes my face and always has a warm hello, and sometimes a brief conversation. The words she consistently demonstrates in these circumstances are “considerate” and “smart.”

At one fundraiser early last year here in New York, I had the opportunity to ask her about her stand on Iraq. I worded my question carefully to politely soften the appearance of confrontation, acknowledging our experience (as contemporaries) of the Viet Nam War and what came after that including the downfall of Richard Nixon’s Presidency. I also told her that I believed the “war” in Iraq was a very dangerous choice or error, and I wondered what she thought. Her answer lacked her characteristic directness and was so circuitous that it lost me: I can’t remember what she said.

That disappointed me personally, although I am not one who believes any candidate of any party owes me an opinion that matches mine. However, Mrs. Clinton as Senator has not disappointed many of her constituents because she seems to be one of those politicians who works very hard at getting things done. Like that homework. It is a quality in very short supply no matter where we go in life. And yet crucial when it comes to progressing and moving forward.

So now it is very interesting to this writer to observe the path and the progress of this woman who might become our first woman president. I do hear detractors everywhere. And they come in all shapes, sizes and social stratas. I hear how she’s “too ambitious,” how she “can’t be trusted,” how they “just don’t like her/hate her/can’t stand her.”  And then I hear from those who, like me, have shared her company (at least in public):

“Have you ever met her?” my friend Peter Rogers once challenged a lunch partner who was exclaiming her loathing for the Senator.

“No,” was the reply.

“Well, I used to feel the same way you do,” he said, “but then I met her. And now I love her. She’s wonderful.”  Mr. Rogers is not by habit a man of wavering opinions although he is forthright and certain about what he thinks.

In other words, in her company, it is impossible not to like her. She’s a good looking woman; looks you in the eye but in an easy way, as someone who seems genuinely curious. She makes the effort to be gracious. She speaks often without notes and substantively, about many subjects, as you would expect of an intelligent, well-informed woman. She’s respectful of those around her, at least by her manner and words. She’s prepared, that kid in fifth grade you sometimes couldn’t stand for always acing the test with the effort it takes to drink a glass of water.

However, we know she’s always been one of those women who get things done. In many of our life experiences that woman is called Mother, the same woman Richard Nixon was referring to in reminiscing about his once held triumph (as President). Mother.

In today’s world Hillary Clinton, like the rest of us, dwells in an environment that is often vicious in the public arena, a free-for-all in verbal abusiveness. The American people, if media is to be believed, like this sort of thing at times. I don’t. I know a lot of other people who don’t also.

I hear, and this is strictly hearsay, tho oft-repeated that Hillary who is very organized and industrious in carrying out her responsibilities, can be a real yeller and have fits of temper. When, I don’t know. And why, I can’t say. My father was like that, although not organized or industrious in carrying out his responsibilities. I can be like that too, as can many of us.

As far as really knowing the woman the way you might know a friend, we are almost all at a disadvantage. Befriending people seeking or in power is not the same as befriending another person. They are never “another person,” or even, in fact, “a person” because everything they pursue has to do with the acquisition of political power.

Political power excludes. It is frequently the territory of sycophants and “handlers” often known as staff and advisers. In modern 21st century America it is also a road to isolation. Like the rest of us, they ride around, separated from each other, in cars; and worse in cavalcades of black cars with black tinted windows, shielding them from the nameless, faceless, baseless us. The corridors of power are powers of exclusivity where decisions are based on accessibility and the populous is generally regarded as a demographic with neither personality, intelligence or soul.

For those who seek its proximity, power can be an aphrodisiac, or as deluding as the strongest palliative. Or it can be an instrument of well-being. When it comes to a Presidential candidate, I can see they can only be who they are and who they always have been.


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January 29, 2007, Volume VII, Number 17


© 2006 David Patrick Columbia & Jeffrey Hirsch/