Big Moment, Small Talk

TO WIT

March 22, 1992|By DAVE BARRY

Today's social topic is: How To Make Small Talk With Famous People.

You never know when you're going to be on an elevator or in a public restroom and suddenly you realize that you're standing next to a famous person such as Walter Cronkite or the pope. When this happens, the important thing is to remain calm, act normal and make an appropriate conversational remark such as: "How about those Sacramento Kings, your Holiness?"

The problem is that you can't always, on the spur of the moment, think of a remark as appropriate as this. Sometimes you panic and find yourself emitting remarks so profoundly inane that you would be embarrassed to say them to your dog.

I had this very problem recently when I found myself attempting to make small talk with Barbara Bush. I swear I am not making this up. It happened in New Hampshire back in February, when Barbara Bush was doing some primary campaigning for her husband, George. He was also in New Hampshire that day, campaigning with Arnold Schwarzenegger on the inspirational theme: "Trust Us, America! We're Rich Men Who Talk Funny!"

Barbara Bush, meanwhile, was going around in her own motorcade, and I had decided to spend the afternoon riding along in the press van. We motorcaded to receptions at three large Republican homes, one of which had a welcoming display out front consisting of two golf carts with American flags on them. It was very attractive, although it did serve as a sobering reminder that, in these troubled economic times, there are some American families in the poorer areas that are down to just the one golf cart.

Inside each home was a capacity crowd of New Hampshire Republicans, engaging in typical GOP-reception activities such as slam-dancing and getting their noses pierced.

No, of course I am kidding. They were standing around wearing ties and dresses and being pillars of the community and talking about what a lovely home it was.

The people were all thrilled to see Barbara Bush, and there were little sandwiches and pastries that even the press was allowed ++ to eat. So I was definitely enjoying myself until we got to the last house, where Barbara Bush met briefly with the press in an upstairs study. Her official photographer lined us up for a group photograph, and I wound up standing right next to the first lady, the two of us sort of facing each other, and I was seized by the overpowering feeling that I should say something. I could feel my brain in there, flailing away, trying to think of something that Barbara Bush and I have in common, and I heard myself saying:

"I shop in the same supermarket as your son, Jeb."

"Big deal," said Barbara Bush.

No, I'm sure she thought that, but what she said, politely, was: "Oh, do you?" A woman who can maintain her composure when her husband is barfing on a foreign lap of state is not going to be fazed by a journalist babbling about what supermarket he shops in. So she handled it very smoothly. "We saw Jeb recently," she continued. "He just turned 39." Then, clearly wishing to end this conversation, she turned back toward the camera.

nTC Obviously this was my cue to shut up. But my brain, now completely panicked, was rummaging around in its various lobes, desperately trying to think up a response to the fact that Barbara Bush's son had just turned 39, and it grabbed the first thing it came up with, thereby causing me to emit the following statement:

"He's very tall."

Perhaps you could come up with a dumber remark to make to the first lady, but you would need the aid of powerful computers. Barbara Bush turned back to look at me, and deep in her eyes I could see the look of a woman who is wondering if maybe she should signal the Secret Service to fetch the big net. She said:

"He didn't just grow this year."

And then the picture was over and Barbara Bush was gone, which is fortunate because there was a real danger that my next statement would have involved the Sacramento Kings.

So the lesson that we learn from all this is, if you have to make small talk with a famous person, you should use your own brain, because mine is defective.

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