Tue, Aug. 20

The makings of a president

In my years as a sports columnist, I covered superstar athletes who seemed at times like gods. Beautiful and lithe, their public personas reflected everything we wanted to believe about heroes. But up close, of course, they were ordinary men and women, some nicer and smarter than others — many downright awful — but almost all quite different from what I expected.

The public personas of politicians also reflect everything we want to believe about them — that they’re insincere, egomaniacal, somewhat dense. They rank somewhere between lawyers and shower mold in our admiration rankings.

In the last six weeks, I have met three of the four main candidates for president and the president himself. OK, I didn’t meet the president exactly. I tagged along with his moving army of staff, Secret Service and press. But I was close enough to know he drank two cups of decaf coffee and a glass of Evian with his linguine and sopped up the marscapone cheese sauce with chunks of sourdough bread.

So in no particular order, here’s what I’ve recently learned about politicians:

They have super-human thresholds for repetition. This is also true of politicians’ spouses. They can say or hear the same stump speech, the same turns of phrases, the same punch lines, a billion times and still smile like mad. I am in awe.

When my husband launches into the Joe Louis story or the centipede joke — as scintillating as they always are — I am suddenly on my feet to clear dinner dishes or rearrange the linen closet, which I imagine is my body’s way of averting a plunge through the nearest window.

A good politician, at least publicly, has the patience of a Buddhist therapist. I watched George. W. Bush in the center of a throng of people after a rally in South Carolina one day. Everyone inched closer for a handshake and an autograph until Bush was trapped inside a dense, excitable mass of bodies.

A rugged older man took hold of Bush’s hand and wouldn’t let go. The man leaned close, so his lips were just inches away from the governor’s ear, and he talked. And talked. And talked, unloading his problems, suggestions and/or theories on the candidate. As others began to become irritated and restless, Bush listened intently, nodding now and then, never breaking eye contact, as if he and the man were alone in the room and Bush had all day.

That was another thing: The politicians didn’t seem to mind being surrounded by people at all times, whether they were voters, staff or press. When Clinton decided on the spur of the moment to have lunch with four friends at the Waterfront restaurant during his San Francisco visit, 15 vehicles, including about five press vans, the presidential limousine and a decoy presidential limousine, tagged along.

Traffic had to be stopped during rush hour. Sidewalks were cordoned off. As the president sat with his friends in an almost empty room of the restaurant, dozens of staff and Secret Service and reporters hovered in the next room, many watching him intently.

I wondered how many times a day he screamed in his own head (as I do after more than two consecutive nights of social engagements), “Can’t I get a minute alone?” Of course, we know now that the president hasn’t always made the most productive use of those, uh, down times in the Oval Office. But we won’t go there.

I also learned that politicians, despite reaching ages at which most people need scratch paper to remember their ATM pass codes, can rattle off statistics and names as if reading a mental ticker tape. When asked a question about Russia at a recent Chronicle editorial board meeting, Al Gore delivered a treatise off the top of his head, breaking down the interconnectedness of everything from medicine to employment to housing to manufacturing in the troubled country, naming half a dozen Russian leaders in the process. I tried very hard to absorb it all, but mostly I prayed that no one asked a follow-up question.

In a nutshell, here’s what the candidates had in common: a tolerance for mind-numbing repetition; enormous patience; an affinity for being surrounded by people tugging and talking at them; and a remarkable memory, particularly for names.

It occurs to me that any candidate who falls short of the White House has a promising future as a kindergarten teacher.

Joan Ryan is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.