“May I have your name, please?” asked the formally dressed female intern seated at the welcome desk. I gave it to her and she checked and double-checked the evening’s roster. After fumbling with her sheets of paper, she looked up and blushed. “I’m sorry, but you don’t appear to be on the list,” she almost whispered.
“I called last week and reserved a ticket with my credit card,” I said looking up, trying to keep my frustration at bay.
“Hang on,” she said rising from her chair. “Let me talk with Tom and see what we can do.” With that, she disappeared around the corner.
About a week ago, I received an email inviting me to Common Cause’s I Love an Ethical NY Awards Reception at the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. Among the scheduled honorees were President Clinton, Charlie Rose and Seymour Hersh. Not a bad line-up and the price was right, so I gave them a call and grabbed a reservation.
I was late arriving, because the city had decided that 5:00 PM was a great time to tear up Eighth Avenue at 42nd street. I had been screaming out of frustration in the car while taking “fifteen minutes to go three blocks,” to recall a James Taylor lyric, and I was a bit frazzled when I finally arrived at the welcome desk. The news that I wasn’t on “the list” just about put me over the top.
You see I wasn’t totally comfortable with the evening’s prospects, to begin with. Having never attended one of these events, I really didn’t know what to expect. I was also going alone. I had spent the day preparing to be ready for the awkward situation of introducing myself to strangers at a large cocktail reception full of well-to-do New York City liberal activists. My task for the night was to face my trepidation. My plan was to make people talk about themselves and perhaps get a glimpse of the former president.
The intern reappeared from around the corner with a young man who sported a full shock of curly hair. He carried a clipboard and wore a blue suit adorned with a nametag.
“Hello, I’m Tom and I’m terribly sorry about this,” he said taking my elbow and leading me toward the escalator. “The cocktail hour is almost over. I’ll go upstairs with you and walk you past the ticket takers into the banquet room. Stand in the back and wait until everyone is seated, then grab an empty chair at a table. There will be some no-shows.”
I was disappointed to have missed the reception, but was not unhappy to have missed the self-introductions.
Tom and I rode the escalator up to the mezzanine that overlooked the lobby. I saw the bar to my right past the jazz trio, and the stylish crowd of attendees, with drinks in hand, was slowly moving down the hall to my left toward the entrance of the banquet room. We stepped off the escalator and stood to the right to wait for the throng to pass.
At exactly the same instant that Tom leaned toward me to whisper, “Of course, you know who that is,” I saw President Clinton. He was standing about six feet away and was surrounded by about seven or eight well-wishers.
The first thing I thought was, “They’re right.” I had been told by those who have been in the same room with the former president that he has an amazing charisma. In this case, he seemed to be standing in a pool of light, so much so that I glanced up to see where his handlers might have hung the pin spot.
Forgetting all self-doubt, I immediately turned to Tom and said, “Excuse me. I don’t get this opportunity very often.”
“Go for it,” he said. “I’ll wait for you down the hall.”
As I stepped forward, I was reminded of the passage from Primary Colors describing “the handshake.”
We shook hands. My inability to recall that particular moment more precisely is disappointing: the handshake is the threshold act, the beginning of politics. I’ve seen him do it two million times now, but I couldn’t tell you how he does it, the right-handed part of it–the strength, quality, duration of it, the rudiments of pressing the flesh. I can, however, tell you a whole lot about what he does with his other hand. He is a genius with it. He might put it on your elbow, or up by your biceps: these are basic, reflexive moves. He is interested in you. He is honored to meet you. If he gets any higher up your shoulder–if he, say, drapes his left arm over your back, it is somehow less intimate, more casual. He’ll share a laugh or a secret then–a light secret, not a real one–flattering you with the illusion of conspiracy. If he doesn’t know you all that well and you’ve just told him something “important,” something earnest or emotional, he will lock in and honor you with a two-hander, his left hand overwhelming your wrist and forearm. He’ll flash that famous misty look of his. And he will mean it.
And that’s exactly what he was doing; traveling seamlessly, effortlessly from person to person, each one seemed to feel that he listened and cared and would remember. Only now, there appeared to be a calm about him, not the frenzy fueled by the passion of elective politics. Something more human, more relaxed, more knowing?
“Okay, everyone! Please make your way into the room. We are about to begin,” came a male voice from down the hall. The former president was talking with the last person in the circle, and I knew I would be next.
The right hand came my way as he was patting the shoulder of the woman next to me with his left. I reached out and took his extended hand and he moved with ease to meet my eyes. I was ready.
“Good evening, Mr. President.” I introduced myself and continued, “I live in upstate New York, and I am, among other things, a freelance writer for political blogs.” His eyes lit up.
“You know, blogs are the new town hall,” he said. “That’s where political discussions are really being held to form policy these days. Very exciting.” He still loves policy, I thought.
“I worked for both of your campaigns and supported your wife for the Senate four years ago.” I said, feeling oddly calm.
He then put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Walk with me.”
Thrilled, I turned and walked down the hall with the former leader of the free world. During our walk, we talked about blogging and its impact on politics, my hometown, his back yard and a particular dream I had long ago.
As we entered the room where he was to be honored, I stopped and said, “Mr. President, about ten years ago, I had a dream, not a waking dream, but a real sleeping dream that was so clear, I still remember the details. That dream was that one day I would meet you and shake your hand and have the honor of spending a few minutes with you. That small dream is being realized right now, and it’s a thrill for me.” I hesitated, and then said, “I don’t suppose you had a dream that you would meet me as well?”
He threw back his head and laughed. “Actually, if I did, it’s gone from my mind. I want to thank you for the support you gave to me and to my wife. She’s a great Senator.”
“I agree, and congratulations on your honor tonight,” I said.
“Thank you,” he said as he was led away to his table.
During my drive home that night, I found myself smiling like a fool. The ceremony itself was fulfilling. Mr. Clinton’s short speech was gracious as were those of Charlie Rose, Robert Rubin, David Dinkins, Calvin Trillin and the leaders of Common Cause, but the reason for my smile was more cathartic. I remembered the joy of that November in 1992 when Clinton had won the presidency. And I took stock of the depressing winter darkness that has been the hallmark of the past five years…and for one night, I felt the warm trade winds in my face. I was smiling again, because I caught the faint memory of what it was like to have Hope Revisit America.
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