Getting Worked Up Over a President

COMMENT

September 17, 1995|By KEVIN THOMAS

It has been quite a while since I've seen the prez in person.

CThe first time was in 1978, when I was still in college and working at a business journal in Washington.

It was impress-the-intern time, so I was sent to the White House for a presidential briefing.

The commander-in-chief then was Jimmy Carter and the White House was gripped by the Iran hostage crisis.

I, of course, was gripped by other things.

While the other journalists delivered their carefully crafted questions, I was on sensory overload trying to blend in with the wallpaper.

While the others scribbled down every word, I was struck by some things that seemed far more significant, like how short Mr. Carter seemed, and what a big smile he had, and even bigger feet. Those are about the only things I remember, except that Sam Donaldson was crude and bombastic and Leslie Stahl spit more nails than you can find in aisle 2 at Hechinger's.

Years later, I got a crack at Ronald Reagan when he came to Hartford, Conn. to speak at the Civic Center there.

Not that we were overly impressed, but the entire staff was sent out to cover the event.

There were so many of us that we outnumbered the Secret Service.

I've forgotten now which detail I was assigned to cover, but suffice it to say I never got so much as a glimpse of the president. Still, there was something very impressive about the event.

Then there was George Bush, whom I was able to see, although from a distance.

The interesting thing about George Bush was that nothing was interesting about him. No wonder Garry Trudeau used to portray him in "Doonesbury" as a blank.

If the man said anything, it certainly never needed to be repeated.

And then there was Wednesday, when Bill Clinton appeared at Mayfield Woods Middle School in Elkridge to kick off a drug prevention program aimed at juveniles.

Being the hardened journalist that I am, I felt initially more at ease with the White House press corps, the folks who sat on the sidelines looking smug and above it all.

Been there, done that, I thought.

But then I started to feel a strange electricity in the air. It was about the time that five helicopters flew over the school and landed behind the building.

Decoys, people were saying knowingly, but there was a sense that something important was about to happen.

It was like the good witch landing in Munchkinland, with a lot of oohs and ahhs upon arrival. When the choppers took off again, the whole crowd looked skyward, waving bye-bye.

But before that, when Clinton made his appearance, the crowd quickly registered those things that were most important to them.

"He looks bigger than I thought."

"Isn't he tan?"

"He seems so young and healthy," were some of the comments %% being whispered.

In fact, Mr. Clinton was looking as pink as a brand new pig. And he seemed to delight in being in a crowd. The only person who waved more than the president was Mayfield Woods Principal Jesse Smith, who was practically giddy with pride.

If you're expecting me to quote from the president's speech, forget it. I had more pressing distractions.

Four-year-old Ryan Purdue, for instance, seemed to be having more fun than the hundreds of others who stood in the sun waiting to greet Mr. Clinton.

While the adults focused on the sharp shooters that lined the roof of the school, Ryan was chasing crickets in the parking lot.

Meanwhile, 9-year-old Christopher Raabe spoke for many in the fourth grade as he waited impatiently for the show to start.

"I'd rather be in school," he deadpanned to his mother, which seemed to me a signal that kids never take these things as seriously as do their parents.

But just when I thought I was at home among fellow cynics, Mr. Clinton started to make his way around the crowd, shaking hands.

Suddenly, it was like a rock star had jumped off the stage to press flesh in the front row.

"I touched his hand!" yelled 13-year-old Tally White, running out of the crowd. "It was very inspirational. It makes me want to never do drugs, though I didn't want to anyway."

Rachel Jordan, also 13, shook the president's hand too and thought the president was "very, very nice."

She asked him about the importance of extra-curricular activities in keeping kids away from drugs. She doesn't remember a word he said either, but he seemed eager to answer her question.

Everyone says that Mr. Clinton is personable and truly seems to enjoy these campaign-style events. And, for a moment, I too considered pushing my way to the front to shake the man's hand.

But then as a veteran of these affairs, I couldn't do that, could I?

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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