Dinner was over and the president was working the room and with some trepidation I approached and got his attention and asked him -- this was a delicate moment -- what he had in his pockets.
This was possibly a humongous protocol violation. But I’d always wondered. He couldn’t possibly have house keys, for instance. It was hard to see why he’d carry money. Jack Kennedy famously had to cadge money from reporters. I had vowed to ask Clinton about this if I ever got within shouting distance of him, my only fear being that I’d slip up and ask him what he’s got in his pants.
The president could have simply ignored my question. But perhaps he realized that as president he’s a public commodity of sorts, a celebrity of such ludicrous magnitude that even his pocket trash is potentially fascinating or even historic. So, genial regular-guy sort of dude that he is, he quickly emptied his pockets. “I got a mess tonight,” he said.
There was a rumpled dollar bill, a dinner program with some notes written on it segmented by neat horizontal lines, a money clip with a crisp ten exposed, the wad looking only a few bills thick (”I rarely have a chance to spend it,” the president said), an unidentifiable thin card (his unrevokable health care card? a burglar’s tool?), an American Express charge card and what appeared to be a Visa credit card, both floating loose. He was tuxed up and didn’t seem to be packing a wallet. He said he usually carries a little cross that he got from an artisan in Russia. Last week, he said, he had a couple of buckeyes in his pocket.
“What are buckeyes?”
“Little brown things,” he said. Like nuts. Got them in Ohio. They brought him good luck at the Duke-Arkansas game.
No keys. No mysterious phone numbers. No yellow Post-It notes saying something like “Don’t forget: Yemen.”
As he was holding his pocket detritus I got a glimpse of something written in fine script across the top of the Visa card (Riggs Bank? Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan?), but I was looking at it upside down and when I asked if I could see it again he just tucked it away, and though he was pleasant about it I got this terrible feeling that not only did the president distrust me in the classic and perfectly acceptable way that any president would distrust any reporter, but that in this case he may actually have been thinking that I was trying to read the number on his card so I could rip him off.
That would be low. No reporter could be that diabolical. Okay, maybe Sam Donaldson.
The lesson of the president’s pockets, if there is one, is that he’s prepared to function in the wild if necessary. If he and Hillary get too sick of Washington they can always put on dark shades and sneak out of the mansion and rent a car on one of the charge cards and hit the road, just a guy and his gal, reveling in the fantasy of being normal people, livin’ small.
This night, though, they were hosting a dinner at the State Department in commemoration of Thomas Jefferson. The dinner ritual begins with a receiving line, Bill and Hill shaking hands with every guest. I was covering the dinner for The Washington Post but for some reason the White House also put me on the guest list. This meant I could sit down. Then, at the last minute, I was told I would be sitting at the president’s table.
This is the dream of every self-respecting Washington journalist. I felt I should probably call one to see if he or she wanted to take my place.
What was the White House thinking? Was this a trick? A terrible blunder? Would the president inform me that I’m not really the person I think I am but rather a cyborg programmed by the CIA for special commando missions and temporarily brainwashed to think it’s human? Most likely the White House image-makers figured the president would benefit from some informal and unplanned contact with a reporter. They knew they had little to lose: At a black-tie Washington dinner a journalist’s natural desire to badger and needle the president will invariably be crushed by the immense social pressure to impersonate a “guest” and suck up like there’s no tomorrow.
Also assigned to the presidential table was Ann Druyan, the science writer who’s married to Carl Sagan, and when I mentioned that I was a bit intimidated she said, “We’re all primates. He’s the alpha.”
The alpha male! Quite right. He’s the big gorilla, and the rest of us are chimps, horseflies, paramecia.
We all went to our assigned seats, and a minute later the room was filled with blinding light from the press photographers, and the president and First Lady were announced and everyone clapped as though we hadn’t seen them just minutes earlier. The press pool -- the rabble, I was thinking at this point -- stuck around while the president made his obligatory toast, and then the pool went away, and the president sat down, and everyone at my table (including an opera singer, two millionaires and a billionaire) for a moment seemed a bit like schoolkids on the first day of class, silent and tense and expectant, waiting for permission from the teacher to start talking.
The president had a golfer’s tan, a red complexion with a suggestion of windburn. He was a bit hoarse as always but also, as always, a big talker, the definition of gregarious. The gravity well of the president distorts the conversational dynamic at his table, bending everything toward him; I found myself constantly thinking that I should spend more time listening to the alpha and less time talking to these other people, these losers.
Dinner was served by waiters wearing white gloves. The food was a fish thing followed by a meat thing followed by a sweet thing. There seemed to be a forest of glasses; I had four working at once, the water, the white wine, the red wine and the sparkling wine. Though I didn’t touch the wine hardly -- for God’s sake, let’s avoid the Nightmare Scenario.
The president spoke a lot throughout the evening about trying to live a normal life, not getting overwhelmed. He talked about Jefferson’s ability to enjoy himself even as he exercised great responsibility. That might be Clinton’s newest goal: to find a way to be president with panache, to be both the leader of a nation and a complete, rounded human being. I asked him if he could imagine doing something as down-to-earth (literally) as gardening, the way Jefferson did. He said he could. He said he doesn’t want to work nonstop.
“I do better on days when I start no earlier than 8:30 or 9 and I take an hour off in the middle of the day,” he said.
(Evil thought: If there’s a second term, he sleeps till 10.)
He went on: “I think presidents should do other things. I play more golf now than when I was governor.”
(Great excuse! Honey, I have to get in 18 holes today or I may accidentally nationalize the steel industry.)
That day Clinton had paid thousands of dollars in back taxes from 1980, something that would have made any normal person completely insane, but he still seemed in a fine mood. He’s not a guy who carries around a lot of bitterness. It must be an alpha thing.
The biggest problem, he said, is that there are too many choices for a president.
“When you become president today you walk into a torrent,” he said, “and every day you have a hundred options and a hundred doors in front of them, and you know you are going to walk through 17 of those doors today and you have to decide which 17 you’ll walk through.”
What a job. It’s not normal. He can know almost anything, talk to anyone, go anywhere -- so much power! -- and yet he’s just one person, confined to the same space-time as the rest of us. When it was over, and I had left to rack up huge bills on a $2-a-minute psychic phone line using the president’s credit card number -- joke! -- there was one comment I kept remembering:
“Al Gore told me about virtual reality,” the president said. “Which I feel like I’m living.”