For just a minute, the clock is pushed back, and there's no such thing as this impending millennium, no such thing as deadlines and divas and no-it-can't-wait faxes.
The construction scaffolding that obliterates the Lincoln Memorial fades into the background, and George Stevens Jr. is no longer a harried co-producer of the Y2K gala to end all Y2K galas. Instead, he's morphed into the lord of the country manor, out for a stroll with his faithful companion, Samantha, an English springer spaniel.
You can almost see the mist drifting off the moors.
Except that there's this security guard who's frantically waving his arms. He's waving his arms and he's yelling.
The waving arms are accompanied by a question:
"Who are you?"
So Stevens tells him -- like, hey, he's the guy running this thing -- and suddenly the guard is all apologies and just-doing-my-job.
"I don't have too much pull here," Stevens tells a visitor. And grins.
His grin is the satisfied smile of a man who knows he's got juice -- especially when it comes to the White House's New Year's Eve shindig, "America's Millennium," to be held tonight at the Lincoln Memorial. Never mind the windowless office in an obscure corner of the Kennedy Center, where every year he heads up the Kennedy Center Honors. Never mind that at an outdoor news conference for "America's Millennium," all the gaping tourists trekking through the Mall were trying to get next to Stevens's far more famous co-producers -- Steven Spielberg and Quincy Jones.
Never mind that he's George Stevens Jr., and not the Sr. who's known for directing such classic flicks as "Giant," "Shane" and "A Place in the Sun." He's a Hollywood native who's been in this business for a very long time, writing, directing and producing films and TV shows. At 67, he's also a naturalized Washingtonian who's been in and around the business of politics a long time as well. And he's got the pictures in his office to prove both connections: There he is, hanging out on the set of "Giant" with Liz Taylor and James Dean. Posing with Thurgood Marshall and Sidney Poitier after his writing-directing-producing turn with the TV miniseries "Separate but Equal." Then there are the photos of the Clintons and the Kennedys. And more photos of Bobby Kennedy. (Stevens's wife, Liz, serves as trustee of the Robert F. Kennedy Foundation and worked on President Clinton's 1992 campaign.)
He started out working with his dad on "A Place in the Sun," "Giant," "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "The Greatest Story Ever Told." At 30, he was tapped to run the U.S. Information Agency's motion picture division, where he oversaw the production and distribution of 300 documentaries each year. Later, he helped create the American Film Institute, where he served as director for more than 12 years.
George Stevens Jr. is nothing if not connected.
Those connections hold him in good stead each year when he puts together the Kennedy Center Honors. (The Honors earned him an Emmy, although critics have accused the show of pandering to the lowest common denominator: TV, rather than art.) And those connections helped him pull in luminaries like Warren Beatty and John Huston for a valentine of a documentary about his father's life that he wrote, directed and produced: "George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey."
"A lot of what I do comes from me being a writer," Stevens says. "Someone told me once, `You're a historian.' It colors what I do."
Indeed, the idea of making history inspired him to get involved in "America's Millennium." In fact, this whole millennium celebration thing came about when Stevens sat next to Hillary Rodham Clinton at some event a few years back. He turned to the first lady and asked, "What are you doing New Year's Eve?"
He couldn't resist the challenge of putting on a pull-out-all-the-stops production on the most hyped night of the century.
"The phrase that stuck was to do something `entertaining and ennobling,' " Stevens says. "You realize it's an extraordinary moment, going from one century to the next. . . . One would have to be cynical not to have feelings about our democracy on this night."
Stevens's buddy Quincy Jones (Stevens calls him "Q") came on board, as did Spielberg. And as they planned for the event, Stevens and Jones rode around Washington, imagining what could be. They stopped at the Mall, and stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and said, "Why not?"
These are, after all, men who know how to orchestrate grand moments. And they figured that ringing in the New Millennium under the watchful gaze of Abraham Lincoln would be the granddaddy of all grand moments.
To that end, there will be footage of Marian Anderson singing in her famous Lincoln Memorial concert, followed by a performance by two present-day African American divas, Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle. An 18-minute film by Spielberg chronicling the highlights of the century, accompanied by a John Williams score. Marching bands upon marching bands. Dancers boogying with Will Smith, the evening's host. A parade of celebrities: Robert De Niro. Diane Keaton. Kris Kristofferson. Usher. Luther Vandross. John Fogerty. Trisha Yearwood. Tom Jones. Kenny Rogers. Bono. Muhammad Ali.
Suggest that the evening is geared more toward boomers than the younger set, and Stevens bristles.
"Will Smith?" he says, throwing out names as evidence of Gen-X credentials. "Usher? I'm not at home playing Usher records. But I know he's going to be terrific and add something to the show."
Grab him in an interview, and he's got his back up, wary and defensive. But then he gets going talking about the millennium celebration and this great country of ours and, well, he gets all misty-eyed.
He's a seemingly unassuming man whose office passes out a 41-page bio to the press. He's a behind-the-scenes man who's made a career of supporting the arts more than creating them. Not that he sees things that way.
"Creating is what I enjoy, whether it's creating the Film Institute, which is a lot like making a movie, or when I was in the government creating nearly hundreds of films that I'm actually still very proud of. Your question leads me into an immodest description of myself. There's the Kennedy Center Honors, where I'm figuring out what's going to be on the stage.
"My real satisfaction is creating things that engage people. And if they're good enough, they'll be around for people to see. My appetite has never been to be a personality."
He points to his horoscope -- he's an Aries -- hanging on the wall:
"Circumstances turn in your favor. Be selective. Imprint style. Take initiative; let others know you mean business when you say, `I deserve the very best and nothing less.' "