A Winters Tale: Hail to the Chiefs

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Someone in Winters recently asked me if during my years as a television correspondent, I had ever met any presidents. While I was never a White House correspondent, or even worked in Washington, I have been in the presence of exactly three. None would have remotely remembered me, or the experience itself. But I remember each encounter. And each was very different. The first president I ever observed closeup was Bill Clinton, though at the time he was far from becoming commander-in-chief. I was working in local news in Los Angeles, at the NBC-owned station, KNBC. I was the nightside reporter, which meant I was usually dispatched to some warehouse fire or police shooting. One evening, the desk called and assigned me to interview a young politician from Arkansas who lately had been making some news.   Mr. Clinton had spoken earlier in the week at the Democratic National convention. He entered the spotlight not for what he said, but because of how long it took him to say it. He had been chosen to place in nomination for president the name of Michael Dukakis. The nomination speech was supposed to be short and to the point, a simple formality. Instead Mr. Clinton droned on for 33 agonizing minutes, and when he finally uttered the words, “In closing,” the audience cheered. This notoriety earned him a visit to the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Carson introduced him, turned over an hourglass on the desk as a joke, and Mr. Clinton played along.   He was charming and self deprecating, and it launched his national career. Our news studios were down the hall from Carson’s, so I went there and asked Mr. Clinton if we might go somewhere quiet to conduct an interview for the late news. We drove to a park in Burbank, sat at a picnic table, and talked. Thinking back on it now, it seems surreal. No secret service, no limousine, no nothing. In fact, I have no recollection of our conversation. Except that never in my wildest imagination did I think that this obscure politician would one day become leader of the free world. My next encounter with a president occurred a few years later in a much different place. I was covering the war in Somalia for the CBS Evening News. My crew and I had spent New Year’s Eve with a US Army unit which had finally secured the town of Baidoa, which had become known as “the city of death.” It was a place overwhelmed with famine and violence, and it had finally been brought under control. We were filming at a local orphanage. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a group of US Army vehicles arrived. Men in fatigues entered the compound, an official delegation of some kind. I found myself standing next to one man who was taking it all in. It was obvious he was an important person, but in his army cap and camouflage gear, he was pretty unrecognizable. Then I realized I was standing next to George Bush. In the last weeks of his presidency, he was visiting this particular corner of Somalia to see the progress the US had made. In my report that evening, I wrote that Mr. Bush would be relieved of this responsibility soon. “In a few days,” I declared, “Somalia will belong to Bill Clinton.” My final encounter with a president occurred close to my home in Santa Monica. One summer evening, Judy and I were walking along the beachfront, when I spotted a group of three people approaching us.  Two young people, a man and woman, on either side of an old man. He was tall, grey haired, and wearing thick glasses. His companions were obviously in charge, there to protect him. As we passed by, I nodded to the elderly gentleman and he nodded back. More importantly, his male escort and I exchanged glances. The young man was a secret service agent, and the look he gave me seemed to say, “You’re right, it’s him.” The old man was Ronald Reagan, by then in the twilight of his life, having been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a few years earlier. He was out for a walk along the beach just like us. It made me think of the fragility of life, and how these three different presidential encounters had told me so much. With Mr. Clinton, you never know what the future holds. With Mr. Bush, no matter how hard you try, the world may confound you. And with Mr. Reagan, no matter what you have achieved, you are only human.  ]]>

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